The Economic Consequences of Emotion

Economists refuse to call the economic downturn that began in the last month of 2007 a "depression" because it is not as serious as the 1930s depression as measured by decline in GDP, unemployment rate, and deflation. That is absurd. It would be like refusing to call the Korean War a war because there were fewer casualties than in World War II. But, the root error of the economists is failing to consider the emotional consequences of an economic downturn and how those consequences in turn generate both direct economic effects and indirect economic effects via politics. Behavioral economists such as Robert Shiller do talk about the effects of emotion on economic behavior, but their focus thus far as has been on booms ("irrational exuberance") rather than on busts. Keynes--ignored until the current crisis--discussed the economic dimensions of busts perceptively, emphasizing the dampening effect of economic uncertainty on investment and consumption; and we have seen that in the present crisis. Private investment has fallen precipitously, and consumption has flattened because fearful consumers are allocating more of their income to savings than in earlier years.

But there is another way in which emotion is affecting the economy. It is brought out in a striking article on the front page of The New York Times today on the growth of the most extreme element of the "tea party" movement--the element that believes the depression was deliberately contrived by the federal government in collusion with international finance. The article makes clear that the growth of this ultra-extremist fringe reflects anger over unemployment, foreclosures, and bank bailouts.

A fringe it will undoubtedly remain, but it is symptomatic of a deep public anxiety that is contributing to the inability of the federal government to deal with the nation's economic problems, grave as they are. It is becoming apparent that the Obama administration's response to the economic crisis has been a public relations disaster. I read somewhere that only 6 percent of the American people believes that the $787 billion stimulus program enacted last February has reduced the unemployment rate. This is almost certainly false, but reflects the administration's inability to explain the theory behind the stimulus, and its clumsy efforts to quantify the stimulus's effect. The administration has been unable to explain the bailouts of what it calls "fat cat" bankers, and the president compounded the difficulty recently by gratuitously approving publicly the multimillion dollar bonuses awarded leading bankers for their speculative 2009 profits, including the infamous (in the eyes of the public) CEO of Goldman Sachs.

It was inevitable that the depression was going to increase America's public debt, which had grown rapidly in recent years because of the Bush administration's fiscal incontinence. But had the administration not decided to ask Congress to approve a $1 trillion health care reform, the deficit would not have achieved the salience in public discourse that it has achieved. It is somewhat, though not completely naive, of people to think that running a high and growing deficit is as dangerous for a nation as for a a family (unless the nation is Greece), but it is an understandable reaction and again one the administration has been unable to counter. The administration is tongue-tied when it comes to explaining its economic policies, perhaps because it has no effective spokesman.

Public anger and fear are, I think, major factors in the congressional deadlock. The public has no confidence in any governmental measures, and this gives free rein to lobbyists to use their considerable skills, and the financial resources of their clients, to block legislative action.

At this writing (an important reminder--because at present U.S. politics are exceedingly volatile), it seems unlikely that significant further economic recovery measures will be enacted, because they would add to the deficit, at least in the short run, and because of public skepticism of stimulus. At the same time, it is unlikely that any measures will be taken to bring future deficits down. The slower the recovery, the greater the deficit; but recovery measures are deficit spending; and economic science has not evolved to the point at which the net contribution of further recovery measures to the deficit can be calculated. So there are no compelling reasons that can be offered pro or con further measures. Meanwhile the deficit swells, but apart from inflation it can be brought down only by higher taxes, reduced government spending, or a higher rate of future economic growth. None of these seem politically feasible at the moment; and the president's recently announced budget proposal to Congress essentially accepts the indefinite continuation and augmentation of an uprecedented federal deficit.

Presented by

Richard A. Posner

Richard Posner is an author and federal appeals court judge. He has written more than 2500 published judicial opinions and continues to teach at the University of Chicago Law School. More

Richard A. Posner worked for several years in Washington during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. He worked for Justice William J. Brennan, Jr, the Solicitor General of the U.S., Thurgood Marshall, and as general counsel of President Johnson's Task Force on Communications Policy. Posner entered law teaching in 1968 at Stanford and became professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School in 1969. He was appointed Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in 1981 and served as Chief Judge from 1993 to 2000. He has written more than 2500 published judicial opinions and continues to teach at the University of Chicago Law School. His academic work has covered a broad range, with particular emphasis on the application of economics to law. His most recent books are How Judges Think (2008), Law and Literature (3d ed. 2009), A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of '08 and the Descent into Depression (2009). He has received the Thomas C. Schelling Award for scholarly contributions that have had an impact on public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and the Henry J. Friendly Medal from the American Law Institute.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In