An interview with George Akerlof

Earlier this week I spoke with George Akerlof, a professor of economics at Berkeley and a winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics, about his new book, Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism. The book, which Akerlof wrote with Robert Shiller of Yale, concerns departures from the full-employment economy: How do we explain the fluctuations of the business cycle, or the existence of involuntary unemployment?

According to Akerlof and Shiller, the traditional economic answers to these questions are tortured and unsatisfying. In search of a better answer, they turn to John Maynard Keynes's notion of the animal spirits: "the restless and inconsistent element in the economy" that is not easily explained by reference to rational actors with simple economic motivations.

I spoke with Akerlof about the book, Keynes, the place of psychology in economics, and the implications of all this for the current crisis. I recorded a similar conversation with Professor Shiller, which I will post tomorrow.

Conor Clarke: The book's introduction says you started this project in the spring of 2003, and now here we are, almost in the spring of 2009. Were you waiting for a major financial crisis before releasing the book?

George Akerlof: [laughs] No, we've always been worried about the type of crisis that was going to occur. And we wanted to get it out before the crisis. And so actually this is late. We wanted to tell people what could potentially be done before the crisis.

Your book is one of a number that have come out recently -- I'm thinking of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudge, and Daniel Ariely's Predictably Irrational -- that attempt to inject psychology into economics. Why all this interest?

I think it is the case that there's been a significant movement to bring psychology into economics over a long period of time. I think what Bob Shiller and I are doing is we're focusing on macroeconomics and the role of psychology in macroeconomics. And I guess both of us have also been working on this for a long period of time and we thought we should bring it together. We initially thought we would do something small -- we thought we would bring out a book of readings. And so we proposed that and we wrote a fairly long introduction.

Then we thought we should do something more significant -- that instead of a book of readings we should write something that somehow gave our opinions on the role of psychology in economics. So that's what we've come out with, hopefully.

It does seem like this book is easily distinguishable from a Nudge because it concerns that macroeconomy. And yet when I think of psychology it's hard not to think about microeconomic concerns -- what shapes the decisions of individuals and individual firms and so forth. Is it easy to move from that stuff to a consideration of the economy as a whole?

Well I don't necessarily think there's a conflict there, at least given my own personal history. I've always been a macroeconomist. That's what I teach. And I guess that's what I've been concerned with ever since I've been very young. I've always wanted to know what caused unemployment. So I think it's natural to combine psychology and macroeconomics. Actually, if you don't take psychology into account, I think it's fairly hard to give a model of the economy that explains a great deal of the economic fluctuations that are going on.

It turns out that the easiest and simplest theory of those fluctuations is the one we give in the book -- that there are these changes in animal spirits or in confidence.

If I were to go back to my macroeconomics textbook the explanation for fluctuations in the business cycle is short-run price stickiness. Is that story wrong?

I think sticky prices might be part of the explanation, but they are not the whole explanation. The real question is why, with the sticky prices that we have, do we have the degree of economic fluctuation that we have? And I think a major part of the explanation is that we have these cycles in confidence, and in the stories we tell about the economy.

So sometimes people are just more confident and more willing to invest then at other times. And sometimes they're more willing to trust other people, and there are stories being circulated about why they should do so and why the economy is doing well. And then people go out -- and it turns out what they do is they tend to binge. They tend to be -- as Bob Shiller would say -- over-exuberant. And this over-exuberance translates into bad investments. Lots of bad things happen. But they're only uncovered when somehow the bubble ends and the commonly accepted stories about the economy change. And then people understand that in fact we were over-exuberant and overenthusiastic, and then the economy falls, and we go into a new phase of the business cycle.

And is the point of this to say, "Macroeconomics has tried to create clean models out of things -- like human psychology -- that are not amenable to clean modeling"? Or is it something like, "There are these consistent and predictable non-economic features of human nature that the clean models have avoided"?  

It seems to me that the standard macroeconomics -- where people only have economic motivations -- has a fairly hard time explaining why there should be such a thing as involuntary unemployment. And in fact there are a large number of economists at the moment who believe that involuntary unemployment is pretty minor. So in order to explain the fluctuations in the business cycle we have to go to motivations that they don't use in their models. You have to go beyond economic motivations.

Presented by

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. More

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism, an economics blog that was recently published in book form by Simon and Schuster. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. He is also on Twitter.

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