Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Why We'll Always Have More Money Than Sense

by Robert Shiller in Newsweek

When it comes to market bubbles and how they are created, very little, if anything, has changed. This is because human psychology has not changed. Massive bubbles are created when large numbers of people buy into "new era" stories that exaggerate how much the world has improved. For example, in the past few years the global equities and housing bubbles were driven by a giddy faith that world markets were on a tear and prices would go up indefinitely. Our animal spirits are sparked by these tales; we find them irresistible. And since as animals we're also given to a herd mentality, in a bubble we tend to invest too much in the most popular stories—and continue to do so even after the bubble bursts.

As I wrote in my book irrational exuberance in 2000, one of the key stories of our time is the triumph of capitalism. This theme was underscored by the disintegration of the Soviet Union and China's shift to a market economy. But many true believers got the details wrong—and became convinced, for example, that capitalism means market prices will always go up.

In the several decades since the worldwide rise of market economies, our perceptions of ourselves have changed greatly—while young people back then might have become hippies, deeply skeptical of business, today's young people are very concerned with making money. They might have temporarily questioned the idea of capitalism after the financial crisis, but quickly shrugged off their qualms. People still largely believe in the ownership society and in markets. They believe in the importance of doing business, and they generally believe that we all have a responsibility to take care of ourselves. So much for the idea that we're all socialists now; while many countries do take care of society's losers to a significant extent, we don't idealize doing so, as we once did. And this unadulterated belief in capitalism helped to fuel the bubbles that led to the crash.

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