The market's clock speed is laughable

Just finished reading ‘Red Plenty‘ by Francis Spufford which has replaced ‘Turing’s Cathedral‘ as my favourite book from this year. In fact the two books probably should be read together. Red Plenty picks up approximately where Turing’s Cathedral ends and offers a rather fascinating peek into how the invention of electronic computers interacted with the planned economy of the Soviet Union under Khrushchev and his immediate successors.

Red plenty follows a community of scientists (economists, computer scientists, cycberneticans and biologists) who propose to reform planning of the soviet economy along the principles of linear programming. The ultimate goal of this exercise is to accelerate economic growth and to bring into being a state wherein there are sufficient amounts of commodities available for to satisfy the needs (and desires) of every citizen (a.k.a communism). This provides fascinating insights into the functioning of the planned economy and the soviet bureaucracy as well as the hopes and fears of those involved.

One of the reasons why this is such a good book is that it really forces you to acknowledge that there a legitimate reasons to question the capitalism and the market as the only viable and sane economic arrangement. While it is clear that the particular approach that is portrayed in Red Plenty has failed with disastrous consequences reading the book reinstalls the notion that another world should be possible.

As Jo Walton notes in his review Red Plenty is at its best where it describes specific problems that appear as a result of economic planning. One example is the following account about running an algorithm that optimises potato delivery to Moscow on an early Soviet mainframe computer. I particularly enjoyed reading this in the light of recent debates about algorithmic trading. Compared to the current practice of trading for the sake of trading this account of crude algorithmic non-market optimisation actually makes sense.

The BESM. A picture of what? Of potatoes. The electrons flowing through the vacuum tubes represent digits; and tonight the digits the BESM is processing represent potatoes. Not, of course, potatoes as they are in themselves, the actual tubers, so often frost-damaged or green with age or warty with sprouting tubercles – but potatoes abstracted, potatoes considered as information, travelling into Moscow from 348 delivering units to 215 consuming organisations. The BESM is applying Leonid Vitalevich‘s mathematics to the task of optimising potato delivery for the Moscow Regional Planning Agency. Seventy-five thousand different variables are involved, subject to 563 different constrains: this problem is out of reach of fingers and slide rules. But thanks to computers, thanks to the BESMs inhuman patience at iterating approximate answers over and over again, it is a problem that can be solved.

The BESM is using Leonid Vitalevich’s shadow prices to do what a market in potatoes would do in a capitalist country – only better. When a market is matching supply with demand, it is the actual movement of the potatoes themselves from place to place, the actual sale of the potatoes at ever-shifting prices, which negotiates a solution, by trial and error. In the computer, the effect of a possible solution can be assessed without the wasteful real-world to-ing and fro-ing; and because the computer works at the speed of flying electrons, rather than the speed of a trundling vegetable truck, it can explore the whole of the mathematical space of possible solutions, and be sure to find the very best solution there is, instead of settling for the good-enough solution that would be all there was time for, in a working day with potatoes to deliver. You don’t, in fact, have to look as far away as the capitalist countries to find a market for purposes of comparison. There is still a market in potatoes, right here in Moscow: the leftover scrap of capitalism represented by the capital’s collective-farm bazaars, where individual kolkhoznik’s sell the produce from their private plots. Somehow, in the hardest times, there are always piles of green leeks here, and fat geese, and mushrooms smelling damply of the forest, and potatoes dug that morning; all so expensive you’d only shop here if money was no object, to stock up for a birthday or a wedding party. When the trade is briskest, the recording clerks sally out from the Ministry of Trade’s little booths and walk among the stalls, carefully writing down prices. But how slow it is! How slowly things move, as customers jostle in these triangles of waste ground next to the city’s bus stations and train stations, compared to the ten thousand operations per second of the BESM!

The markets clock speed is laughable. It computes at the rate of a babushka in a headscarf, laboriously breaking a two-rouble note for change and muttering the numbers under her breath. Its stock arrives one sack or basket at a time, clutched on a peasant lap. It calculates its prices on cardboard, with a stub of pencil. No wonder that Oskar Lange over in Warsaw gleefully calls the marketplace a ‘primitive pre-electronic calculator’. In the age of the vacuum tube, its an anachronism, good only for adding a small extra source of high-priced supply to the system, for those moments when the modern channels of distribution can’t quite satisfy every consumer need. And now even that function is becoming obsolete. When Leonid Vitalevich’s program reorganises Moscow’s delivery system, the efficiency gains should fill the state shops with enough cheap potatoes for everyone. Now, as the seconds pass, the BESM is steadily shaving away the average potato delivery distance in the capital. At present, it seems, a spud must travel an average of 68.7 kilometres from cold-store to shop: but in the basement of the Institute of Precise Mechanics it is already clear that 61.3 kilometres is possible, 60.08 kilometres, 59.6 kilometres, and still the program is showing that the optimum has not yet been reached. The shorter the distance, the fresher the potato, the smaller the spoilage this is the best index of success the programmers can come up with, since price as such is not available to them as a quantity to be minimised. The state selling price of potatoes has been fixed for many years. 57.9 km, 56.88 km. This is very nearly a 20% improvement. Soon Moscow’s potato supply will be 20% better. 55.9 km, 54.6 km. Its a new world. (page 115f)

Also – and somewhat predictably – reading red plenty has added a new place i want to visit to my growing list of such places: the beach in Akademgorodok (at the bottom-left of this picture)

Crop from a photo by Elya/CC-BY-SA
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