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Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction and Economics

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With the same originality and astuteness that marked his widely praised Butterfly Economics , Paul Ormerod now examines the “Iron Law of Failure” as it applies to business and government–and explains what can be done about it.

“Failure is all around us,” asserts Ormerod. For every General Electric–still going strong after more than one hundred years–there are dozens of businesses like Central Leather, which was one of the world’s largest companies in 1912 but was liquidated in 1952. Ormerod debunks conventional economic theory–that the world economy ticks along in perfect equilibrium according to the best-laid plans of business and government–and delves into the reasons for the failure of brands, entire companies, and public policies. Inspired by recent advances in evolutionary theory and biology, Ormerod illuminates the ways in which companies and policy-setting sectors of government behave much like living unless they evolve, they die. But he also makes clear how desirable social and economic outcomes may be achieved when individuals, companies and governments adapt in response to the actual behavior and requirements of their customers and constituents.

Why Most Things Fail is a fascinating and provocative study of a truth all too seldom acknowledged.

272 pages, Hardcover

First published April 7, 2005

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About the author

Paul Ormerod

26 books23 followers
Paul Ormerod was the head of the Economic Assessment Unit at The Economist and the director of economics at the Henley Centre for Forecasting in England. He has taught economics at the universities of London and Manchester, and was a founder of the consulting firm Volterra. He lives in London.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 42 reviews
Profile Image for Tim Pendry.
984 reviews359 followers
January 26, 2016

Published ten years ago (2006), many of the sceptical views of Paul Ormerod about the rationalism claimed for twentieth century economics and the importance of understanding how complexity limits strategy are now mainstream - thanks, in part, to the 2008 Crash.

This book is well within the radical free market tradition of Hayek to which is added what might be considered a conservative and even pessimistic respect for the fact that millions of minds in real time with imperfect knowledge cannot know the future and that most planning is futile.

Things have changed even over a decade so the current interest in behaviourial psychology is present but not covered in depth and the possibility (which I think unlikely) of advanced AI improving our ability to plan is not provided as a possible objection to be countered.

The stance is one of referring us back to what evolutionary and biological scientists tell us about systems and punctuated equilibrium. Within the analysis is a sort of rough-hewn belief in progress of a sorts through allowing things to fail without planners getting in the way.

The book is interesting as far as it goes and a good summary of the basics of thinking in the social sciences although it swings from simple exposition involving almost every available cultural cliche to detailed accounts of statistics and mathematics that will pass most people by.

The book is a little dull but it is worthy enough. Its point is taken as a corrective to the pseudo-scientific claims of modern economics but Ormerod is a reformer and not a revolutionary - something about his looser, more pessimistic model of the human condition does not stand up.

What he seems to miss is one Marxist concept that got thrown out of the bath with the bath water - consciousness. His evolutionary models for economics are based on things (plants, animals and most humans) that are not self-reflexive, are not aware of themselves as actors in the drama.

To some extent, he is right to ignore consciousness because most people most of the time are non-reflexive about their condition, especially those ideologues who believe they have achieved some sort of raised consciousness. The mass of humanity plods somewhat or is trapped.

But humans are not only perceptually challenged things in the world mired in habits and narratives created by history, they are also potentially capable of reflecting on what they see, transforming what they see and challenging habits, history and narrative.

While he is almost certainly right that most enterprises (business, political project, even life plans) fail on both endogenous and exogenous events beyond our control and that planning in itself is often absurd, he may not be right in his acceptance of a conservative pessimism as a stance.

There is some interest in the moment in 'super-predictors' who can get it right about the future (a claim I cannot say is right or wrong) but the fast animal, some might say predatory, intelligence of some people certainly does give them an edge as individuals over others.

Another way of looking at the failures of society and enterprise is not to accept that planning has failed (which is true) and have to ride 'nature' as we can in a sort of Eastern zen fug but that the social itself inhibits the survival and progress of the whole when it constrains radical thought.

What I mean is that human society, business and politics tends to failure when it gets trapped in its own secure narratives, when it becomes the 'herd' and when it abandons self-reflexiveness (humanity's edge on animality) in favour of the narrative that created the enterprise.

Perhaps the narrative of the Founding Fathers and an Eighteenth Century text is at the root of possible American internal failure as much as Marxism-Leninism was at the root of the Soviet collapse. Perhaps ...

The creative narrative becomes sclerotic, becomes a 'plan' or (worse) becomes an interest turned in on itself where the paradox is that its self-preservation dictates the conditions for its own demise either from its internal inability to adapt because of its narrative or external shocks.

The alternative model of constantly questioning any foundation narrative, being prepared to kill the enterprise to create better successor enterprises with deliberation (which is not failure because it is willed) and constant 'revolutionary' renewal certainly has its dangers.

However if we switch our attention from corporate, social and institutional failure to individual success at adaptation and then back to adaptive strategies that are based not on the institution and its managers but the interests of its members as a whole, the picture might look very different.

None of this gives the lie to Ormerod's basic thesis - that nearly all enterprises fail on their own terms. It just raises the question whether we are looking sufficiently at the flaws of perception surrounding those terms and at our failure to encourage radical awareness of our condition.

If we behave like herds of wildebeest, we will die like herds of wildebeest - in mindless dances to the music of time, our weak culled in good times and periodic near or total extinctions according to the laws of punctuated equilibrium in bad times.

The book is, however, recommended (in my view) to students or the general public who want reasonably clear (mostly) briefings on some of the big ideas of the social sciences tied into a plausible corrective to the rationalist claims of economists and planners.

Ormerod certainly takes a step in the right direction but others will need to think and write about whether the species really is a herd animal and destined to ultimate failure or whether it makes its own world even if it takes 30,000 years of further adaptation.

Perhaps I have read too much Arthur C. Clarke lately or taken my Nietzsche too seriously but the current cultural pessimism in the West (of which this book is an early example) strikes me as having been taken too far.

Yes, there is a crisis of failure around us - of governance in particular - and, yes, it may well get worse before it gets better and, yes, the planners have proven themselves to be failures (especially in that dreadful bureaucratic idiocy the European Union) but that may not be the whole story.

If you consider that the species was universally living in mud houses at best five thousand years ago (in the blink of an eye in evolutionary time), the achievements of even the herd have been remarkable and not just from Carlyle-type remarkable men (and women).

There are remarkable men and women, some in lowly social positions, scattered throughout a world of simple narratives for flailing and failing enterprises. The solution to the problem of perpetual institutional failure may be to carve up those narratives and start freeing some talent.

Contemporary rule-based liberal democracy in particular is trapped by its own rules and forms. This will kill it before too long. Its resilience is stronger than planning tyrannies but not as resilient as it thinks it is. A greater plurality of institutions merely buys some time.

19 reviews
July 18, 2010
I read this book almost five years ago but I think the author's observations and thesis is more relevant today. In some sense, this book and Fooled by Randomness are companion pieces. However, Omerod lacks the arrogance of Taleb. In looking through the other reviews, I can see when certain readers are taken aback by the thought that randomness and chance play such centrals roles in processes where we historically projected the illusion of human control.

Profile Image for Gavin.
1,084 reviews320 followers
April 9, 2019
Clever stuff from one of the Great Recession predictors. Think I'll reread it eventually.
Author 11 books
October 16, 2018
In this book, Omerod presents himself as a free-market advocate, and provides a well reasoned and expansive basis for his belief. He readily acknowledges that economies will periodically fail, including the free-market variety. He justifies his faith in the Hayek version on the basis that in the long run, the free market version will provide better results.

He does a good job of establishing the bases for his belief via mathematical, evolutionary, and economically historical expositions. And his extension of these into the socio-cultural spheres have some credibility. Unfortunately, the conclusion one could draw from his writing is the advocacy for a total absence of governmental regulation into our personal lives. However, I’m certain he would agree that some regulation is required, but he does not (and in my opinion, cannot) provide a demarcating benchmark. At times, he almost seems to promote the old formula: “The government that governs least, governs best.” In fact, the correct formulation should refer to governing the least necessary . Omerod gives us specific examples of government overreach, ones we can all easily agree are excessive, but he doesn’t attempt to provide a metric for how much regulation is necessary. Perhaps such a metric is impossible to define, but the author should have devoted at least a page or two to acknowledge the problem.

The writing is mediocre, and the beginning drags until the second chapter. Overall, what he tells us about the inevitability of failure and catastrophic system collapse is important. Despite the shortcomings of his advocacy, everyone should read this book for his premise, especially ideologues of the left and right, as well as those of business. In this era, when the edges of civilization are beginning to crack, they and the rest of us need to become aware that progress is not constant, and that commitment to any cause or system without moderating influences invites eventual collapse.
Profile Image for Chris.
56 reviews2 followers
May 9, 2009
I enjoyed this book largely because it is anathema to Freakanomics.

Freakanomics was a very popular book with a very dumb title that applied economic theory to parts of life that we generally don't associate with economics. The idea was that economic theory can teach us about everything.

This book, by contrast, submits that economic theory is incapable of telling us much about anything at all, even the things we expect it to, such as how prices are set and why businesses fail.

We need to critically re-evaluate the way we understand markets etc, and in a discipline like economics, which is in many ways more dogmatic than any religious sect, it is refreshing to see someone willing to offer a different perspective.
569 reviews4 followers
April 1, 2020
This book was published in 2005, which is unfortunate since some events since 2005 (crash of 2008, the entire Obama / 45 phenomenon, Brexit, and the emergence of total surveillance through our mobile phones) are highly relevant to Ormerod's thesis.

To be absolutely honest about how shallow my motivations were for approaching this book, I was a little misled by the cover art, which led me to expect some zippy anecdotes about how various specific things failed. No. There is absolutely no reference to the Titanic, the Edsel, Betamaxx, or the Dodo. Those features of the cover art, my friend, are pure MARKETING.

Speaking of marketing, have you ever thought about what "orthodox" economic theory has to say about the entire concept of marketing? Paul Ormerod has, and (according to him), orthodox theory cannot account for such concepts as either marketing or market research. Everyone knows the supply-demand curve from ECON101. The assumptions underlying this curve involve perfectly rational economic agents, performing transactions with perfect rationality and informed by perfect understanding of all costs and consequences. Ormerod provides clear examples of how difficult it is for any business to know their demand curve. The massive industries of marketing and market research exist exactly because of the impossibility of knowing for sure. Even the idea of how a selling price could be agreed is somewhat paradoxical, for between two perfectly rational agents with perfect knowledge, neither one should willingly put him or herself at a disadvantage, however infinitesimal.

The development of such ideas takes fully the first eight chapters; it is only by chapter 9 that the purpose of the book is stated clearly: delineation of the parallels between economic systems and biological systems.

It turns out that the pattern of extinctions over the past 500m years is very similar to the pattern of company failures over the last hundred: a fairly low background rate, punctuated by irregular spikes, and with the very occasional extremely large peak.

What explains this pattern? Having demolished orthodox economic models for why things happen, Ormerod proffers alternative models, and shows that models involving individual agents who are connected through networks that evolve over time, have robust predictive power. Importantly, these modeled individual agents can not be allowed perfect knowledge of the other agents; if they know too much, such that they could act intentionally to improve their model fitness, the entire model breaks down. Hence, "for all our human efforts to act with intent, the end result is very similar to what would result if all agents acted with zero cognitive ability."

I found this modeling discussion, and the book on the whole, interesting and instructive. However there were times where I found his historical analysis superficial and glib. Here I paraphrase his analysis of history, 1900 to present:
In the first half of the 20th century, capitalism was going great, but there were some problems that led to the State taking a larger role in the economy. There were also two World Wars that cemented a larger role for the State, and we've been stuck with that for the last sixty years. We have seen spectacular gains in living standards, life expectancy, and prosperity, all due to capitalism. We also have problems, and these problems are due to improper attempts by governments to plan and pursue social policy objectives.
I am not kidding - I have only condensed a little bit. This is Ormorod's closing injunction: having established that no amount of planning is sufficient to achieve a desired outcome, we should stop trying. He doesn't come right out and call for the dismantlement of child-labor laws, but I get the feeling he is thinking it. It's quite curious: for all the scorn he heaps on "orthodox" models of reality, nonetheless he has built his own model of reality that is equally all-encompassing and equally dangerous in its own way.

Recommended for those with an interest in economics and a few handy grains of salt.
Profile Image for Ben Peyton.
142 reviews1 follower
July 22, 2021
This is one of the best books I've read this year. It does a great job of taking real-world data and using it to critique traditional economic theory. It's very convincing. At the most basic level, the book argues that traditional economic theory around equilibrium, pricing, competition, does not match what happens in the real world. Businesses in the real world are constantly changing and these theoretical states never happen except on paper.

For me, one of the most interesting ideas from the book is the parts about the limits of our ability to know what is happening in the world and why. The book looks at games or thought experiments with very simple rules and research shows that these games quickly become too complex for humans and even computers to solve. The point is that if supposedly "simple" games are too complex for humans to figure out what the optimum strategy is, the real world is infinitely more complex and strategies purporting to know future outcomes will most likely be wrong. This is especially applicable to public policies and economic policies. Both of which rely upon assumptions of how the world works and proper understanding of the causality between variables. It's true we have some idea of how the world work but we are still mostly blind to the true complexity of it all and we are normally overconfident in our predictions about it.

I would say the main focus argument the book makes by the end is that the process of businesses going through the creation and eventual destruction provides benefits to the whole ecosystem of businesses. Sometimes it is to the benefit of the ecosystems that businesses fail so as to encourage greater fitness of the remaining and future businesses. These ideas are probably the more controversial of the book. I can see people arguing that allowing entire businesses to fail is a net negative on society and the government has a role to play in preventing this from happening. I think the author would argue that there is a role for the government here but it is mostly to outline the rules of the game and attempts to get too involved in the system will lead to even worse outcomes.

But, it is a good book overall. I would highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Francis Fish.
Author 6 books18 followers
March 10, 2013
I think this is an important book, and I also think its message might be difficult for some people to reconcile their world view with. Ormerod sets his stall out to show that economists have presumed that the economy (and lots of other systems we think of all day every day) actually is a steady state, that markets exist as a relationship between buyers and sellers, with supply and demand following perfect curves that come from perfect knowledge.

Of course, as he points out, this is nonsense. Markets don't exist in a steady state, there are too many factors that cause change. Ormerod cites work done that shows even if the steady state were to occur any kind of shock to it could take as long as a hundred years before it would stabilise again.

The classical view that comes all the way from Adam Smith assumes perfect knowledge, actors in the system need to know what every other actor is doing. This doesn't happen, the textbook view that makes assumptions around marginal costs is bogus, a lot of the time businesses don't know what they are, a lot of the time they don't know what their competitors are doing, and as you can't see into the future, even if they did it probably wouldn't help because you still don't know what your customers may want that you don't do. Most businesses of any size or complexity tend to work using rules of thumb, and the MBA spreadsheets don't help because they assume perfect information. Also, your customers might just not like what you have to offer this season.

He looks at work done on evolution. In particular work done by Raup shows that there is a power series relationship between the frequency of extinction events and their size. Other people have discovered that you can draw almost exactly the same curve if you look at business failures. This has some interesting consequences - if you play with these models and look at an arbitrary measure of 'fitness' in the Darwinian sense then a degree of cooperation is actually good for the long term viability of the system as a whole. Ultra competition forces prices down and isn't good in the long run - neither is cost cutting.

The problem of perfect information is also addressed by looking at simple games, such as the Prisoner's dilemma, played over many iterations and looking at what strategies win over the long term. As well as an arbitrary game involving where on a line you might place your ice cream stand to get the most customers. As soon as you have more than two players, and more than one time of entry into an existing market it becomes almost impossible to do more than work out what the graph of possible solutions to the problem is and understand the shape of it. If you are one of the players it's hard to work out what to do.

Interestingly we have two extinction models - one is external shocks (the asteroid of dyno extinction fame), another is that a niche closes because of some other factor in the competition and a species dies out. Species are competing and cooperating (predators stop prey eating all of the available food and destroying the environment which means both species survive), so there could be a cascade from what looks like a relatively small cause. In fact, both happen, there is no either/or. But modelling this, predicting the future, becomes impossible. All you can do is look at the shape and work out how to cope with what may happen.

Ormerod concludes by giving an overview of the work of Schumpter and Hayek, that is often ignored.

The visions of the world articulated by orthodox economists and by Hayek are fundamentally different. Conventional theory describes a highly structured mechanical system. Both the economy and society are in essence gigantic machines, whose behaviour can be controlled and predicted. Hayek's view is much more rooted in biology. Individual behaviour is not fixed, like a screw or cog in a machine is, but evolves in response to the behaviour of others. Control and prediction of the system as a whole is simply not possible.

Ormerod quotes several examples of systems coming up with robust solutions to problems (even the origins of the mighty US dollar) that weren't obvious until they were left alone to find solutions themselves. A good example of this is the hub and spoke architecture of US domestic airlines that appeared after deregulation. It serves customer needs but no-one could have foreseen it at the time.

The central argument is that central planning doesn't work and solutions that are workable and human come from creating environments where the actors can work together on solutions that benefit them. Essentially.

... it is innovation, evolution and competition which are the hallmarks of a successful system ...
Schumpter coined the phrase 'gales of creative destruction'. He argued that innovation led to such gales that the caused old ideas, technologies, skills and equipment to become obsolete. The question ... was not 'how capitalism administers existing structures ... [but] how it creates and destroys them'. Creative destruction, he believed, caused continuous progress and improved standards of living for everyone.

This has serious and interesting consequences for policy makers - the models show that forcing too much competition between actors hurts the overall fitness of the system, and also protection does too. So most of the time they must resist the urge to exhort and fiddle - this comes right back to the work that Deming did all those years ago that no-one remembers and everyone should read. Four days with Doctor Deming

But if they resist the temptation to exhort and fiddle without enough information, if they don't listen to lobbyists and make sure decisions are made locally by the people who know what's needed. If they do all these things, we don't need that many them and they don't need to do much to keep things steady.

I've just started reading Antifragile, which addresses the other side of this equation, given that the world is very unpredictable isn't it better to create institutions and systems that aren't brittle from so much command and control mania and even benefit from small shocks and changes. I will return to this subject again in my next review. I think that I have accidentally stumbled on two books that complement each other. Ormerod's work gives a mathematical, scientific background that looks across many disciplines to say some very similar things.

So, read this book, it will surprise you and leave you thinking about how we should do things so that failure is part of what happens but isn't a catastrophe.
Profile Image for Reza Amiri Praramadhan.
479 reviews23 followers
January 22, 2019
I am not a student of economics, so I must admit that I am quite confused for most of the time reading this book. But I can say that the author argues that the perfect world, with perfect market competition and fully informed and rational actors as imagined by most economists cannot exist, simply because of the uncertainties of how the world works. The author pointed out that from 100 wealthiest companies in 20th century, only few of them survived into 21st century. To explain how this can happen, the author likened the economics to biology. For me, the part that excites me so much is the part when he attacked the holy concept of equilibrium, the most basic of economics.
Profile Image for sathvik.
15 reviews23 followers
April 6, 2019
I really liked the book and agree with the book on most fronts .But god does it feel like pile of mess where he jumps from why companies fail to why traditional economics doesn't work to why society and decisions end up with unforseen consequences combined with his hayekian bias why the government shouldn't be be too controling in its actions .It ends up being this jumbled mess with his biases and good ideas and ways of thinking .
In the end what I am saying is the book lacks structure a smooth narrative rather jumps on too much back and forth and encompass this with his biases . That's what the it ends up as .
Super frustrating to read . Nonetheless it has great value to it albeit with a headache for a day or two in makes sense and removing his bias from the book
Profile Image for Harry.
507 reviews
September 16, 2021
I expected a better book than this. There is so much repetition that it dulls the reader to what is being said. Given it's length you would expect lots of references and explanations that didn't involve single anecdotes. Lots of unsupported conclusions are given as facts. We are just supposed to believe that his research and opinion are valid.

The author does have a message, it is just presented poorly.
Profile Image for Marcus Cramer.
45 reviews2 followers
May 29, 2019
Interesting demonstration of how most failures/extinctions are purely random; also a pretty interesting connection of evolution and economics. Definitely worth the read and also a good book for data scientists, albeit a bit weirdly structured at times.
Profile Image for Simon.
15 reviews14 followers
October 30, 2019
The author has an ambitious goal. Unfortunately the execution is somehow less than satisfactory. There are interesting ideas and discussions. People who are looking for a robust scientific account of why and how everything fails might be disappointed.
Profile Image for Rossdavidh.
508 reviews146 followers
October 11, 2015
Subtitle: Evolution, Extinction, and Economics.

The cover of my copy of this book shows the dodo bird, the betamaxx, a car which I'm going to guess is the Edsel, and the Titanic. As you can tell from this, Paul Ormerod is not content to examine failure in just one field. Businesses and species, technologies and ecosystems are all examined. We discover that the term "half-life" can be usefully deployed when looking at members of the Largest 100 Companies in the United States list, and also to species. Failure is a complex topic.

It is also, in some ways, an apt description of this book.

This assessment is in many ways overly harsh. Ormerod can write well, he can mesh an historical anecdote with analysis of the underlying principle it illustrates, he can find an apt metaphor or thought experiment to clarify some rather abstract principles. I thoroughly enjoyed 90% of this book.

What Ormerod does a good job of showing is that, in sufficiently complex systems, failure is not just inevitable, it is not far off from random. The analogy with the half-life of a radioactive element is apt, and mathematically descriptive. Very large companies are not much more likely to succeed than small ones (once you get past the first few years of a small company's existence, in other words once you have established that the small firm was ever really a going concern). The current success (however you measure it) of a species is not much indication of its likelihood to be around in a million years' time. Ormerod has done some original research (using computer models) into the reasons for all of this, and a good job of surveying what others have done as well.

The short version is, there is no such thing as a good strategy. You can know everything about a firm, or species', strategy, and still not know if it is better or worse than another's. Competition between firms, individuals, or species, is an inherently non-linear system, with each member impacting the fate of the others so that it is inherently impossible to model accurately. Given this fact, while each CEO probably has a strategy, and if it is successful will believe in his heart of hearts that he is deserving of that success, the underlying reality is that the faces of those who appear on Forbes, Fortune, or the Wall Street Journal are distinguished from their peers primarily by being luckier.

Why do things fail? Because the world is chaotic, in the precise mathematical sense as well as the ordinary one. So far, so good.

Then, in the last chapter ("What Is to Be Done?"), Ormerod tries to tie these strands together. I am somewhat disappointed in this book simply because of how impressive it had been up to that point. Failure is a big topic, and my brief summary above can only hint at the splendid analysis of it which he presented. Perhaps, Ormerod should have stopped there, answering the question of the book's title and not attempting to go further. But, go there he did.

What is to be done? Let the market decide.

Ok, it's not that I disagree with this, for the most part, but that's all you've got? You don't have anything to say about how our society copes with failure (or fails to do so), except don't have too much government? No other useful lessons you can draw from the fact that failure does not happen in the manner that Adam Smith, Keynes, Friedman, Darwin, Dawkins or Gould described it?

For example: given that failure is always a risk, and inherently unpredictable, is there anything in our extensive use of outsourcing (putting your company's fate in the hands of others halfway around the word) that we should be reconsidering? What about building an energy system that depends upon oilfields we cannot control. What about our financial systems, have you anything to say about a system where banks are "too big to fail", once we have concluded that no matter how big, you may fail, and more or less without notice? What about our electricity generation and transmission grid, or our insurance industry, or our bond market. Are these in need of any changes, once we have concluded that failure is not an unfortunate departure from the norm, but rather the ongoing norm, like death and taxes?

Perhaps, though, I ask too much of Ormerod. Perhaps it will have to await another mind to take the work he has done, or expertly explained, and carry it forward to a conclusion about "What Is to Be Done". In the meantime, to disabuse ourselves of the idea that failure can, with sufficient prudence and diligence, be avoided, the first 13 chapters of Ormerod's book are a great read.
Profile Image for Gordon.
212 reviews44 followers
December 19, 2011
This is a book by an academic economist about why economists have it all wrong. Although the author’s brief bio says that he’s had a successful career outside academia in the world of business, nothing much in his writing shows signs of that. This is a highly theoretical work, and while it does draw on many examples from every conceivable field from Shakespeare's plays to the early years of the US auto industry, it’s not an in-the-trenches kind of work.

• Things fail because intent and outcome aren’t the same thing.
• Things fail because complex systems are vulnerable to the butterfly effect.
• Things fail because events don’t always follow a normal distribution curve, but instead sometimes have fat tails. Events then become more extreme and/or extreme events become more common. Witness the two catastrophic stock meltdowns of this decade when NASDAQ lost 80% of its value in the early 00’s and the S&P 500 (and most other indexes) lost almost 50% of their value in 2008. That’s two "once in a lifetime" events in the space of less than 10 years.
• The world of economics does not work the way economists think it does:
“Microeconomics concerns things that economists are specifically wrong about, while macroeconomics concerns things that economists are wrong about generally”. – P.J. O’Rourke
• Enter Daniel Kahneman and Vernon Smith (winners of Economics Nobel Prize in 2002), with the field of behavioral economics (or as he refers to it, “experimental economics”). This revolves around the idea of making choices that are not the optimal or “best” one, because we can’t figure out what that is. So, we "satisfice" instead of maximizing.
• “Paradoxically, failure at the individual level, whether plant or animal, company or government policy, is absolutely required for the health and vitality of the system as a whole”. (p viii) He is a keen fan of Friedrich Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter, especially the notion of “creative destruction” -- the destruction of older structures gives rise to newer and more successful ones.
• Ormerud puts forth The Iron Law of Failure: 99.99% of all species that have ever existed are now extent. 10% of the companies in the US go out of business every year. Extinction is the norm, not the exception. The success of the whole and the success of the individual are not the same thing. Lesson: Hedge your bets and diversify your portfolio, but expect periodic disasters anyway. Kinda sounds like today’s stock markets …
53 reviews2 followers
April 11, 2015
A fascinating book that discusses the similarity in biological and commercial extinction. Frankly, much of the economic data is beyond my comprehension, however, that doesn't mean that this book is only for economists, most of it can be understood by the generally educated public. Some of the important points about economics which I learned about from this book are that: people aren't always rational decision makers (an assumption in much economic theory) and they rarely have all the information or have the capacity to process what information they have. I enjoyed how much of this book integrated more than just economic date, but also historical, literary and cultural knowledge. The fundamental thing I took away form the book is that that life, like business, needs competition because competition forces organisms to innovate and therefore to evolve. That evolution statistically speaking increases the rate of survival. This also means that by failing, many organisms promote the survival of others. This is an interesting book that will have considering the topics in it for a long time.
620 reviews44 followers
June 29, 2009
How evolution explains business failures

This excellent, short work by Paul Ormerod is a worthy successor to his remarkably successful Butterfly Economics. As he did in that work, he draws here on lessons from biology to explain phenomena in economics. He covers a wide range of subjects, time periods and theories, all tied together (though not without some straining at the rope) by an inquiry into failure. Although Ormerod makes every effort to keep the work accessible, that scarcely makes it is easy reading. Readers who lack at least a nodding acquaintance with scientific writings and economic studies may find this hard slogging indeed. With that caveat, getAbstract thinks that readers who have a background in this field should pay serious attention to Ormerod's ideas. The notion that failure is inherent and inevitable for many systems ought to guide business strategies and – especially – government regulation.
Profile Image for Eric.
131 reviews29 followers
February 28, 2011
Interesting enough read, over my head though.

Walked away with a vague sense of
* need to pay attention to unintended consequences, tendency for policies and plans (eg. to achieve desegregation) to fail
* complex behaviours, unpredictability emerging even in simple systems
* something about general equilibrium theory being wrong
* parallel between biology and economics (?)
* ...particularly striking similarity between distribution of extinction sizes/frequencies in species and firms
* comparison between exogenous and endogenous models accounting for such distributions, how in biological context both seem to work, but latter makes sense for economic
* need to read a bit of Hayek

References to LTCM and power law distributions seem to be echoed in Black Swan.

Writing seems a bit tiresome, repetitive, plodding... yet somehow unclear. I dunno, maybe I was just tired
Profile Image for Jono.
90 reviews26 followers
January 3, 2008
Some great reasons why predicting the future is incredible difficult. All sorts of reasons why we get things wrong on both the micro and macro scale.

The basic thrust was that even minor irregularities can occasionally have very big consequences that you wouldn't have predicted because everything's so darn complex.

Towards the end the book pushed hard his own work and theories around the link with evolution - e.g. the pattern of extinction of firms in the US mirrors almost exactly the pattern of extinction of animal species. It was a shame to me that it pushed so much his own ideas at the end - but maybe it was just because I wasn't expecting it.
Profile Image for Jim Razinha.
1,261 reviews61 followers
January 28, 2012
For me, the only thing of value in the book was in two lines in the introduction: "The book's content is firmly grounded in reality. Too much work in the social sciences, whether it is the dense mathematics of much of economics, or the tortuous prose of a great deal of sociology, is purely theoretical "

"...tortuous prose..." Spot on and so appropriate. The less precise or rigorous the proposition, the more cryptic the language used to describe it.

Mr. Ormerod was blind to his own tortuous prose. And the "things" that fail? Businesses. Economics. Nothing else. And nothing new to tell on that front, except perhaps a new packaging of a collection of historical data.
Profile Image for Henry Manampiring.
Author 8 books1,014 followers
September 12, 2007
a nihilistic book written by economist - 250 pages of argument that we will most likely fail anyway! Depressing indeed.

But Ormerod makes a compelling point. The thought that men have complete control, or mere knowledge, of all the variables is complete illusion. There is always unknown variable, unknown factor, or the very least, unknown relationship between the known variables. All these will play a role in ruining your plan.

The point is exciting, but the writing style is rather dry and a bit draggy at times.
Profile Image for Kirsty Darbyshire.
1,091 reviews49 followers
December 10, 2010
The hardback copy of this I read had the subtitle "Evolution, Extinction and Economics" but it looks like the paperback got the subtitle swizzled to "...and how to avoid it". I probably wouldn't have picked it up with the latter title. I don't think either title is that descriptive though - it doesn't have that much to do with extinction or evolution and didn't really seem to explain that much about how to avoid failure.

I will confess I was skim reading more the further I got into the book though so may very well have missed the essentials. Quite interesting but not terribly enthralling.
Profile Image for Tim Hughes.
10 reviews2 followers
April 9, 2013
a thoughtful and calm extended essay covering much of the same ground as the black swan with a lot more humility. builds slowly from a standard criticism of mainstream economics into a fascinating consideration of advanced evolutionary theory and the similarity between biological and economic systems. ends with a laudable call for epistemic humility. will be best appreciated by those with at least some understanding of economics and statistics.
Profile Image for John Schneider.
178 reviews30 followers
August 2, 2015
Paul Ormerod has written a wonderful book in plain English that explains failure in complicated systems in as simple a manner as possible. Examining the extinctions of species and corporations, Ormerod postulates that understanding how one fails will illuminate how the other fails. To that end he examines failure from an interdisciplinary approach that lacks jargon but is full of insight. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to understand failure in a more robust way.
Profile Image for Davis.
80 reviews1 follower
August 17, 2007
This author seems to go around and around without getting to any real substance or answers. It did change my perception on how easily or often the very large companies like the ones in the Dow 30 can go under or disappear. Regardless of how talented the managers or employees are, companies can still fail for one reason or another. Overall this book was disappointing.
476 reviews13 followers
March 11, 2012
Less than spectacular discussion about the non-linearity of processes and the limits of knowledge. Taleb blows through this entire book in about 6 pages without needing to include borderline-incomprehensible scatter plots. However, Ormerod's appeal for humility and attempt to blend evolutionary Darwinism and corporate Darwinism, especially regarding mass extinctions, is useful.
Profile Image for Grim-Anal King.
218 reviews2 followers
February 14, 2012
A mostly well paced read through a fairly comprehensive debunking of some pretty basic economic tenets. Very few politicians seem to have taken the blindest bit of notice though. The madness continues unabated......
Profile Image for Rachel.
105 reviews5 followers
May 16, 2012
A slow read. However, right after finishing this I started my required school reading and similar concepts about uncertainty and risk were reiterated. Interesting ideas, but not the best articulation.
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