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Human Traits Essential to Capitalism

Yale economist Robert Shiller argues that rising inequality in the US was a major cause of the recent crisis, and little is being done to address it. He recommends reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, The Passions and The Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before its Triumph, Nudge, Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy, and Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class.

If you did try to summarise it, what would you say you’re trying to get at with these book choices?

I think that our economic system reflects our understanding of humankind, and that understanding has been developing, with especial rapidity lately. You have to understand people first before you can understand how to devise an economic system for them. And I think our understanding of people has been accelerating over the last century, or even half-century.

…On The Passions and The Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before its Triumph, by the great Albert O Hirschman.

This is a great book. It traces the history of an idea – an idea that is central to our whole civilisation today. The idea is that human nature is basically unruly and destructive, or has the potential to become so, but that we’ve designed a society that sets a space for this kind of impulse, where it’s acted out in a civilized manner – and that’s capitalism. So when we reflect on some of the horrors of capitalism, we have to consider that things could have been much worse if we didn’t have this system. Our fights would have been on real battlefields, rather than economic battlefields. That’s a theory, that’s an idea that really led to the adoption of capitalism, or the free enterprise system, around the world.

…Tell me about Nudge.

We’re now coming up to 2008, when Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published this book. It looks quite a bit different from the first two in that it reflects much more modern psychology. I admired Adam Smith for his personal observations, but there was no experimentation, there was no real modern psychology in it. What Sunstein and Thaler emphasise is a lot of principles of psychology that can only be understood with regard to actual experiments. So they talk about things like anchoring, availability, representativeness, heuristic optimism, overconfidence, asymmetry of appreciation of gains versus losses, status quo bias, framing, self-control mechanisms – all the things that we’ve learned about.

We’re way ahead of Adam Smith now in our understanding of people, and that suggests a different model for our economy. Nudge doesn’t present itself in a grandiose way at all, but it’s a very important book. It really is a different model of our economy, and how government should be involved.

What was the ultimate cause of the crisis, in Fault Line’s view?

The title of his book is Fault Lines – so it’s plural. He notes that it’s not one cause; he actually has several different classes of causes.

The first of them is political, and the politics that lead to rising inequality. That’s been a trend in recent years in most nations of the world. Inequality has been getting worse, particularly in the US, but also in Europe and Asia and many other places. One thing that this has done is it has encouraged governments, who are aware of the resentment caused by the rising inequality, to try to take some kind of steps to make it more politically acceptable. He gives other examples as well, but historically, that has often taken the form of stimulating credit: instead of fixing the problems of the poor, lending money to them. He has a chapter entitled ‘Let them eat credit’.

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