Home Economics If Funghi Can Understand Ricardo's Comparative Advantage Then Why Can't Politicians?

If Funghi Can Understand Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage Then Why Can’t Politicians?



Of course, one answer to the headline question is that politicians have less brains than mycelium and I’m happy enough to run with that as a useful explanation.

But perhaps a little more detail might be in order:

One part of the mycelium had access to a big patch of phosphorus. Another part had access to a small patch. She was interested in how this would affect the fungus’s trading decisions in different parts of the same network. Some recognizable patterns emerged. In parts of a mycelial network where phosphorus was scarce, the plant paid a higher “price,” supplying more carbon to the fungus for every unit of phosphorus it received. Where phosphorus was more readily available, the fungus received a less favorable “exchange rate.” The “price” of phosphorus seemed to be governed by the familiar dynamics of supply and demand.

Most surprising was the way that the fungus coordinated its trading behavior across the network. Kiers identified a strategy of “buy low, sell high.” The fungus actively transported phosphorus — using its dynamic microtubule “motors” — from areas of abundance, where it fetched a low price when exchanged with a plant root, to areas of scarcity, where it was in higher demand and fetched a higher price. By doing so, the fungus was able to transfer a greater proportion of its phosphorus to the plant at the more favorable exchange rate, thus receiving larger quantities of carbon in return.

Adam Smith talked of that innate propensity to truck and barter. Which, as we can see, is not constrained to our own species nor even phyla nor kingdom.

But we can go further. For this behaviour here is actually Ricardo’s comparative advantage. Sure, it’s just happenstance that places extra munchies in a particular place but a resource endowment is still a comparative advantage. And so the funghi are trading across that. We could even say they’re doing arbitrage across geography.

All of which is fun of course but not exactly new. This is from a book on the subject, books tend to get their information from earlier research:

Beneath your feet, plants and fungi are exchanging nutrients in a marketplace where generosity is rewarded and cheating punished. The two kingdoms were known to exchange nutrients at root level – now, researchers have shown that they have evolved ways to enforce fair trading.

And that’s the Ultimatum Game. Punishing unfairness at direct cost to those doing the punishing but to societal benefit.

All of which does leave that certain question. If actually mindless funghi can manage this then why is it all so difficult for politicians to understand? Or, as I put it a decade back when this was last being talked about:

All without a bureaucrat or regulation in sight, mindless plants and fungi are capable of playing repeat games, regarding good and desired supply, punishing cheaters and enforcing fair trade.

So my suggestion is that we get our own mindless plants and fungi out of their offices, strip them of their nice salaries and pensions and burn their regulations on how we may conduct voluntary exchange. For I’m pretty certain that we can manage to outperform Medicago truncatula even if the newly unemployed bureaucrats will find it difficult to beat mycorrhizal fungi.

This all having a certain immediacy and relevance as we try to work out our post-Brexit trading regime….




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