Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Crisis of Animal Spirits

In the WSJ, Yale's Robert Shiller argues for the relevance of the Keynes beyond the "textbook" Keynesian model:
The term "animal spirits," popularized by John Maynard Keynes in his 1936 book "The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money," is related to consumer or business confidence, but it means more than that. It refers also to the sense of trust we have in each other, our sense of fairness in economic dealings, and our sense of the extent of corruption and bad faith. When animal spirits are on ebb, consumers do not want to spend and businesses do not want to make capital expenditures or hire people...

But lost in the economics textbooks, and all but lost in the thousands of pages of the technical economics literature, is this other message of Keynes regarding why the economy fluctuates as much as it does. Animal spirits offer an explanation for why we get into recessions in the first place -- for why the economy fluctuates as it does. It also gives some hints regarding what we need to do now to get out of the current crisis...

The famous phrase comes from this passage in chapter 12 of the General Theory:

Even apart from the instability due to speculation, there is the instability due to the characteristic of human nature that a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than on a mathematical expectation, whether moral or hedonistic or economic. Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as a result of animal spirits - of a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities. Enterprise only pretends to itself to be mainly actuated by the statements in its own prospectus, however candid and sincere. Only a little more than an expedition to the South Pole, is it based on an exact calculation of benefits to come. Thus if the animal spirits are dimmed and the spontaneous optimism falters, leaving us to depend on nothing but a mathematical expectation, enterprise will fade and die; - though fears of loss may have a basis no more reasonable than hopes of profit had before.

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