Why the behavioural economists are wrong, a review of ‘Animal Spirits’ (Part Two)

1 07 2009
  
Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives The Economy, And Why It Matters For Global Capitalism, by George Akerlof & Rober Shiller

Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives The Economy, And Why It Matters For Global Capitalism, by George Akerlof & Robert Shiller

BOOK REVIEW (Part Two)
Animal Spirits: How human psychology drives the economy and why it matters for global capitalism, by George Akerlof and Robert Shiller (published by Princeton University Press)

“Animal spirits…is an economic term, referring to a restless and inconsistent element in the economy. It refers to our peculiar relationship with ambiguity or uncertainty. Sometimes we are paralyzed by it. Yet at other times it refreshes and energises us, overcoming our fears and indecisions.” [1]

The first part of this review contested  Shiller and Akerlof’s claims that the recession is caused by the irrational behaviour of individuals. There is however much more in their book to challenge.

I once talked to a behavioural psychologist whose job was to improve the behaviour of children in the classroom. The first thing he told me was that to do his job properly he had to completely ignore the, often tragic, social backgrounds of the disturbed children. Instead, he focussed entirely on strategies for changing their behaviour by psychological tricks which were akin to those used to train dogs. I was reminded of this when reading Shiller and Akerlof’s approach to some major economic and social issues. They too ignore the historical and social factors which have led to many of the phenomena they discuss and instead present them as merely behavioural oddities.

Their view is that human economic behaviour is determined by a combination of five things: confidence, fairness, corruption, money illusion, and storytelling.

These are all relatively straightforward concepts, except perhaps for money illusion. Money illusion is a term used to explain why people will oppose wage cuts, even if the prices of what they buy are falling in deflationary times, more than they will fight for wage rises at a time of inflation when everything is getting more expensive.

Why do workers resist wage cuts and not fight as strongly for indexed linked rises?  Rather than a psychological reason, is it not more likely that workers understand that once they have conceded the need to accept pay cuts that they will have handed power to their bosses to do so again, to keep coming to the well? Is it not also likely that compared with this, the need to combat inflation, a future event which like all future events is uncertain, will seem less of a vital issue? The authors approach to this is typical of many of the points they make. They persistently choose to interpret attitudes arising from social and historical experience as hard wired psychology. Often this leads to observations which are so stunningly banal that you are left wondering whether these authors simply need to get out more. Take the following examples:

‘people rarely quit their jobs in recessions’[2]

‘people tend to want to work in higher paid industries’[3]

‘students…really don’t seem to care how much they save’ [4]

Their emphasis on the importance of storytelling also takes them away from understanding what is perfectly clear and rational behaviour based upon experience. They claim that the high savings rate in China and other new economies is down to the ‘story’ that ‘there is no shame in being poor in China, since this is viewed as a transitional state’[5], therefore people do not consume. However as many people have pointed out, in a country with often rudimentary social and medical insurance[6], savings are an essential to fall back on when times get tough.

The answer to most of the problems the authors riase is state action of one kind or another. For example, a discussion on racial discrimination in the US describes the situation of black Americans thus,

‘there is the notion among both blacks and whites that there are two groups, we and they. This very notion is part of daily reality. This notion – as much as low financial assets and skill levels – is responsible for the continued poverty of African Americans.’[7]

The experience of racism in the US is reduced to a ‘story’ which reinforces social stereotyping. The authors do not recognise that racism, where it exists, needs to be combatted through political means. Their suggestion instead is positive discrimination, action by the state.

Of course, there are many aspects of human behaviour which appear to be irrational. We can usually see them more clearly when we look at other people’s cultures rather than our own; and there’s the clue. Generally speaking these types of behaviour are the product of a specific cultural and social experience. Sometimes it is also true that we take our lead from what other people do, as in buying houses or shares in a rising market. But this is a perfectly rational thing to do in the absence of information as to why this is a bad idea.  Very few people can call the top or the bottom of any market, and those that do are often just lucky. In the mean time we all try to take as much advantage of it as we can.

The rise of behavioural economics is a symptom of the paucity of proper historical, political and economic analysis of society. In that sense it is just as much part of the voodoo culture of the day as the types of behaviour it disparages.

 

[1] Animal Spirits p4

[2] Ibid p103

[3] Ibid p103

[4] Ibid p116

[5] Ibid p128


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Why the behavioural economists are wrong, a review of ‘Animal Spirits’ (Part One)

24 06 2009
 

Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives The Economy, And Why It Matters For Global Capitalism, by George Akerlof & Rober Shiller

Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives The Economy, And Why It Matters For Global Capitalism, by George Akerlof & Robert Shiller

BOOK REVIEW (Part One)
Animal Spirits: How human psychology drives the economy and why it matters for global capitalism, by George Akerlof and Robert Shiller (published by Princeton University Press)

 

“Keynes appreciated that most economic activity results from rational economic motivations-but also that much economic activity is governed by animal spirits. People have non-economic motives. And they are not always rational in pursuit of their economic interests. In Keynes’ view these animal spirits are the main cause for why the economy fluctuates as it does.” [1]

One of the most frustrating aspects of the recession has been the absence of serious examination of its causes. Of course, there has been huge coverage of the events of the recession. But at the level of serious analysis there has been a dearth of proper public discussion. The political and public domain has been dominated by trivia such as bankers’ salaries or MPs’ expenses. Public debates have been restricted because there are few people who are able to discuss the economy and politics in the same breath. Yet it is impossible to make sense of one without the other.

The demise of politics and the political sphere as a meaningful forum for discussing the economy has encouraged the search for other explanations, outside the sphere of politics or traditional economics. Some people, including influential people within the Conservative Party in the UK, have turned instead to the behavioural economists (BEs), like Robert Shiller and George Akerlof, for explanations and guidance. Shiller and Akerlof’s case is that it is the behaviour of individuals within the market system and their psychology which explains much of what has gone wrong.

 Behavioural economists reject the view that the recession can be explained in traditional economic terms. In particular they have in their sights the rational market theorists, more commonly known as the free market proponents who have been influential since the time of Thatcher and Reagan, who argue that free markets can regulate themselves.  The upheavals of the past two years in the world economy have discredited the rational market theorists, as the blame for the recession has fallen on to the unregulated  nature of the financial markets. The BEs conclusion is that markets are susceptible to the irrational behaviour of individuals. This irrational behaviour requires state intervention to counteract it and to reintroduce stability. In the wake of the global recession this explanation and remedy is falling on fertile ground.

But the recession is not a crisis inflicted on an otherwise stable system by the behaviour of irrational individuals, as ‘Animal Spirits’ suggests. The problems of present day capitalism are the product of historical and economic developments within the system itself. The idea that anybody can say, as Gordon Brown did, that we can have neither boom nor bust, is plain wrong. The recession is just as intrinsic to modern capitalism as the boom which preceded it.

Whether it is the overdependence of the UK on financial services and public spending, the lack of any underlying productive dynamic to western economies in general, the crisis of the political class and its impact on the economy or the likely effects of the rise of China, none of these developments are explained or accounted for by Akerlof and Shiller. Their argument is that capitalism can work fine if it only had a little more regulation:

Capitalism can give us the best of all possible worlds, but it does so only on a playing field where the government sets the rules and acts as a referee.[2]

We can agree with the BEs that the market, or capitalism, is not rational in the way that rational market theorists claim. The most singularly irrational aspect of capitalism is that decisions to invest are made by individual or groups of capitalists rather than by or in the interests of the majority of people. If the prospects for profitable investment look poor, because the expected rate of profit is too low or too risky, then money flows elsewhere. In the past ten years money flowed instead into apparently safe areas such as financial derivatives based on assets like housing etc . This created an unsustainable asset bubble which inevitably crashed and burned. Phil Mullan [3] calls this the financialisation of the western economies, the tendency for money to try to beget more money without going through the process of productive investment in new businesses.

In addition, capitalism is less and less able to stand on its own two feet as it becomes more and more established. The state often has to step in to try to prop up ailing industries, as the US government recently did with General Motors, or to subsidise whole ones, as the EU does with farming. The growth of financialisation and state support together represent the throttling of dynamic economic development in the west. The truly dynamic parts of the world economy are now in the east.

The approach to explaining the recession taken by the BEs turns reality on its head. Capitalism as a system with inbuilt tendency to crisis is let off the hook and the individuals who suffer from the recession are blamed for it.

Part two of this review will follow shortly

 


[1] Animal Spirits p ix

[2] Ibid p173

[3] http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/4244/

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After the recession, a New World Order?

27 04 2009
<I>Fixing Global Finance: How to Curb Financial Crises in the 21st Century </> by Martin Wolf

Fixing Global Finance: How to Curb Financial Crises in the 21st Century, by Martin Wolf

BOOK REVIEW
Fixing Global Finance: How to Curb Financial Crises in the 21st Century, by Martin Wolf (published by Yale University Press)

Following the ‘credit crunch’ and now the full-blown recession, the big story of the twenty-first century is likely to be the shift in the balance of power between the indebted West and the credited East.  There are some writers on the economy who seem to understand better than others that politics should be seen as concentrated economics. Martin Wolf, associate editor of the Financial Times, is one such writer.

His FT column is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what is happening in the current economic crisis. His latest book is about the problems of the world financial system and the events that led up to the current debacle. In it, Wolf explains both the underlying causes of the recession while also exposing the complex and potentially dangerous political consequences that have arisen as a result.

The central point in the book is that China is now playing a role in the world economy that no country has ever done before. China is ‘both the largest exporter of capital (as the United Kingdom was in the late nineteenth century) and the fastest growing emerging giant (the role played by the United States at that time)’.

China, along with other dynamic exporting nations, such as Japan, built up massive external surpluses of money in the period after 1997. The surpluses were based on the export of manufactured goods to mainly Western countries. By 2006, says Wolf, ‘The total Asian surplus was $511billion ($239billion for China, $170billion for Japan, and $102billion for the rest of Asia). The surplus of the oil exporters was another $396billion… But the US deficit was $857billion.’

So the US deficit was the equivalent of the total surplus of Asia and the oil-exporting countries. As a result, ‘The United States has in turn, been absorbing about 70 per cent of the surplus savings in the rest of the world, with the difference accounted for, not by increased investments, but by higher consumption and a lower rate of savings.’

Wolf is highly critical of the US for consuming rather than investing the massive amounts of imported capital, which ended up inflating the housing bubble and presaged the credit crunch. He sees the problem as one of underconsumption within China and other developing countries. He attributes the running up of huge external surpluses by China and others as a policy response to the Asian crisis of 1997/1998 when currencies collapsed and there were devastating consequences for the economies of some East Asian countries. He argues that ‘The lesson learned by many emerging economies – both those directly affected by the crises and those who have been onlookers – is not to tolerate current account deficits’.

So he sees the growth of external surpluses as a policy decision by developing countries. Others have argued that it is not as straightforward as that (1). China in particular would struggle to reinvest its huge surpluses internally because of the general underdevelopment of huge parts of the country (although its huge internal fiscal stimulus this year is trying to address that problem).

Wolf discusses why China and others have put huge sums of money into the US when the rate of return is so low. Given the problems China has in developing its own economy, the question really should be: what was the alternative, other than keeping the money under the bed? The nightmare scenario now for the Chinese is that the US inflates its way out of its debt, thus reducing the value of Chinese capital in the US.

So while we can understand from the Chinese point of view how we have got to where we are, from the US point of view the problem is completely different. The US and other Western countries, like the UK, have run up massive debts because, as Wolf points out ‘The high income countries have become importers of savings since their savings rates have fallen below their investment rates’.

Quite simply, we in the US and the UK have taken the savings from developing countries and consumed them, leaving ourselves in massive debt. The key question that comes out of this is how this imbalance in the world economy can be righted. As Wolf says: ‘A large-scale flow of capital from poor countries to the world’s richest nations is perverse.’

One consequence of the recession is that the international flow of capital has collapsed. It seems unlikely that, once the recession is over, the flows of capital from East to West will return in the same way. A rebalancing of some sort will have to take place. The West is unlikely to be able to resume its consumption of the savings glut from the rest of the world, certainly to the extent that it has in recent years. Western countries will have to find other ways to finance growth and consumption while we can assume that developing countries will shift their surpluses more towards the development of internal markets.

The rebalancing of the world’s economies will also, of necessity, affect the way the world is managed politically. Currently all of the world’s financial and political global institutions reflect the relative economic weight of countries 40 or 50 years ago. This will have to change. This is where it becomes politically challenging. As Roger Alton has pointed out:

‘The financial and economic crash of 2008, the worst in over 75 years, is a major geopolitical setback for the United States and Europe. Over the medium term, Washington and European governments will have neither the resources nor the economic credibility to play the role in global affairs that they otherwise would have played. These weaknesses will eventually be repaired, but in the interim, they will accelerate trends that are shifting the world’s centre of gravity away from the United States.’ (2)

As a result, some countries will lose power and influence and others will gain. Whether and how this can be managed is going to be the story of the first part of the twenty-first. Managing this shift in the middle of a recession is a huge political task, to which Wolf offers no solution except to argue for a restructuring of the International Monetary Fund. Nevertheless, he has written a fine account of the economic issues underlying the political problems facing the world today.

This book review was published by www.spiked-online.com on 23 April 2009

(1) See Darling, it’s all about the global imbalances, by Stuart Simpson.

(2) The Great Crash, 2008: A Geopolitical Setback for the West, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2009