Thursday, January 15, 2009

Do most people have a pessimistic bias?

I did not respond enthusiastically when Jim said that he wanted further discussion of Bryan Caplan’s book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter”. I told him that I was looking forward to talking about something else, like the recent research that suggests that happiness is contagious, but Jim was not to be distracted.

After referring to an earlier conversation (reported here) Jim said: “I accept Caplan’s view that most people have an anti-market bias, an anti-foreign bias and a make-work bias, but I’m not too sure what to make of his claim that most people have a pessimistic bias. How does he support that?”

I explained that the main support came from a survey of the attitudes of economists and the general public in America. Economists were much more optimistic than the public on questions such as whether you expect your children’s generation to enjoy a higher standard of living than your own and whether you expect the average American’s standard of living to rise or fall over the next five years.

I didn’t think what I had said was funny, but Jim burst out laughing. After he composed himself he asked: “What grounds did those economists have for being so optimistic?”

My response was that there has been a vast improvement in living standards in many countries over the last 200 years. Adam Smith was right when he said that efforts of everyone to better their own conditions is often powerful enough to maintain “the natural progress of things toward improvement” despite the failures of government. Over the years some very prominent economists have forecast the stagnation or secular decline of market economies, but subsequent events have always proved them to be wrong.

Jim then said: “I can see that optimism is justified if you take a long enough time frame and have faith that the average voter will not elect populist politicians who are likely to regulate economic incentives out of existence. But economists who share Bryan Caplan’s views about the irrationality of voters do not have grounds to be optimistic, do they?”

I don’t know whether or not that question was meant to be answered. I suggested that even now there are probably stronger grounds to be hopeful about the future than, say, 30 years ago. Markets are a lot more flexible now as a result of reforms introduced in the 1980s and 1990s. I added that all we need to get out of the bubble–bust cycle is for central banks to introduce monetary policy rules that will have a stabilising effect, rather than a destabilising effect.

Fortunately Jim didn’t ask what would be wrong with a monetary policy rule that interest rates should be determined by market forces in the same way that other prices are determined in a market economy. It would have been a good question for Jim to ask, but it is just as well he didn’t ask it because I don’t have an answer.

As usual, Jim had the last word. He said: “You know how every generation has a tendency to be pessimistic about the next generation.” I nodded and he continued: “From the beginning of history old people have always been talking about the good old days when young people used to have good manners and respect for their elders. Well, I actually don’t think that there is much wrong with the younger generation these days. If only they could learn to hold their liquor as well as we could when we were young, then they wouldn’t be too bad.”

Postscript: Jim has actually not had the last word this time. There is further discussion of this question in my next post.


Me-Me King said...

It seems commonplace that Americans are pessimistic. My dad heard the doom of the future from his father, I heard it from my dad, my children have heard it from me and so it goes. It's easy to accept that mindset, I think, when governments perform poorly.

Winton Bates said...

Me-Me: That isn't the way the rest of the world sees Americans. I'm not sure I am entitled to speak for the rest of the world, but (despite what I have written above) I am sure that Americans are nearly all incorrigible optimists.
When Americans are down on their luck they console themselves with the thought that their luck must change soon and in any case every cloud has a silver lining. Australians console themselves with the thought that things could always be worse. Sometimes a relatively optimistic Australian will assert that things can't get much worse than they are now. But such people are quickly told not to get their hopes up too high because things could actually get a "hellava" lot worse.
You might appreciate this poem by John O'Brien which captures the traditional pessimisim of Australians: