Review: Animal Spirits, by George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller


Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. 264 pp. $24.95 (cloth).

animal-spirits

During the Great Depression, the English economist John Maynard Keynes published The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, in which he argued that governments could spur employment and reinvigorate an ailing economy by borrowing and spending money. The recent financial crisis has reinvigorated interest in Keynes’s ideas. Articles in the Financial Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, and Forbes have heralded the resurgence of interest in Keynesian theory. Commentators across the political spectrum, from Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz to Bruce Bartlett and Greg Mankiw, have called for a return to Keynesian economics. Congress and President Obama have enacted a gargantuan “stimulus” bill and are pursuing massive spending programs the likes of which Keynes could only have dreamed. It seems that pundits and politicians are all Keynesians now.

A new book, however, argues that Keynes’s theory is much more profound than most people realize. In Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism, George Akerlof and Robert Shiller present what they regard as the essence of Keynesianism—Keynes’s view of man as an animal saddled with inherent, irrational drives. These “animal spirits” have historically been ignored, say the authors, which is why Keynesianism has, at times, given way to other theories. Those who want Keynesian political policies to rise back to dominance and endure need to understand and embrace this neglected aspect of the theory.

The authors point out that, because Keynes published his work in the middle of the Great Depression, his followers wanted governments to adopt his policy recommendations as soon as possible. To make his prescriptions more palatable, Akerlof and Shiller tell us, Keynesians of the time deemphasized the more insightful yet more abstruse “fundamental message” in Keynes’s work. Although the watered-down version of Keynesianism was more politically acceptable, it was, according to the authors, less politically potent and more vulnerable to attack.

Yes, the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations engaged in deficit spending, but they “lacked the confidence to pursue those policies far enough” (p. viii). The Keynesian borrowing and spending of World War II was more robust, Akerlof and Shiller say; consequently, it ended unemployment, became all the rage in the 1940s, and remained a widely respected policy for some time. But even this broader and longer-lasting support for Keynesian deficit-spending was bound to fizzle because the “more fundamental message of The General Theory was cast aside” (p. viii). . . .

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