Behavioral Economics

Mind Over Money

PBS Nova (2010)

Film Review

Mind Over Money is an intriguing Nova documentary about the new field of behavioral economics. At present, banks and governments use complex mathematical models in making decisions about lending, investment, taxation and government borrowing. These models are based on the premise Adam Smith put forward in Wealth of Nations that the “rational self-interest” of groups of individuals causes economic markets to be perfectly self-regulating without government regulation or control.

While the economic “rationalists” who subscribe to this belief acknowledge that not everyone makes totally rational decisions about money, they claim enough do to enable bankers, governments and economists to 1) predict the behavior of markets mathematically and 2) guarantee the overall stability of markets without government interference.

In contrast, behavioral economists argue that most decisions around money are based on emotional and unconscious factors. They further argue that without government regulation, waves of irrationally sweep through the stock market and mercantile exchange (where commodities are traded), causing destructive speculative bubbles and crashes as they did in in 1929 and 2008.

John Maynard Keynes was the first economist (during the Great Depression) to raise concerns that destructive booms and busts result from irrational investing behavior. Because he could offer no clear explanation why this was happening, his views were largely dismissed.

Economist Robert Shiller echoed Keynes concerns in his 2005 book Irrational Exuberance, in which he predicted the 2008 global economic crash.

Thanks to a pressing need to understand the 2008 downturn (and prevent another one), social psychology research into spending and investing behavior is enjoying its own boom. The documentary describes a number of fascinating experiments that validate Keynes’s original claim that these decisions are largely controlled by emotional and unconscious factors.

For my own part, I question why we need to produce absolutely scientific certainty for something that’s blatantly obvious. In contrast to economists, Wall Street traders all readily agree that Wall Street volatility is driven by waves of emotion. It strikes me that Wall Street economists refuse to accept the behavioral basis of market activity because they have a vested interest in continuing the high priesthood of complex mathematical models.

The film implies that more market regulation is needed to prevent this type of market volatility. I disagree. In my mind, the best way to strip Wall Street of this vested interest is to strip banks of the power to create money out of thin air and restore money creation to public control (as Andrew Johnson and Abraham Lincoln attempted to do.) See An IMF Proposal to Ban Banks from Creating Money