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Saturday, November 01, 2008

"Challenging the Crowd"

Was it Groupthink?:

Challenging the Crowd in Whispers, Not Shouts, by Robert Shiller, Economic View, NY Times: Alan Greenspan ... acknowledged in a Congressional hearing last month that he had ... no idea a financial disaster was in the making. What’s more, he said the Fed’s own computer models and economic experts simply “did not forecast” the current financial crisis.

Mr. Greenspan’s comments may have left the impression that no one in the world could have predicted the crisis. Yet it is clear that well before home prices started falling in 2006, lots of people were worried... It’s just that the Fed did not take them very seriously.

For example, I clearly remember a taxi driver in Miami explaining to me years ago that the housing bubble there was getting crazy..., he said that there would surely be a glut in the market and, eventually, a disaster.

But why weren’t the experts at the Fed saying such things? And why didn’t a consensus of economists at universities and other institutions warn that a crisis was on the way?

The field of social psychology provides a possible answer. In his classic 1972 book, “Groupthink,” Irving L. Janis, the Yale psychologist, explained how ... experts ... on ... panels ... are forever worrying about their personal relevance and effectiveness, and feel that if they deviate too far from the consensus, they will not be given a serious role. They self-censor personal doubts about the emerging group consensus...

From my own experience on expert panels, I know firsthand the pressures that people — might I say mavericks? — may feel when questioning the group consensus.

I was ... a member the economic advisory panel of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 1990 until 2004... While I warned about the bubbles I believed were developing in the stock and housing markets, I did so very gently, and felt vulnerable expressing such quirky views. Deviating too far from consensus leaves one feeling potentially ostracized from the group, with the risk that one may be terminated. ...

In 2005, in the second edition of my book “Irrational Exuberance,” I stated clearly that a catastrophic collapse of the housing and stock markets could be on its way. ... I distinctly remember that, while writing this, I feared criticism for gratuitous alarmism. And indeed, such criticism came.

I gave talks in 2005 at both the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, in which I argued that we were in the middle of a dangerous housing bubble. I urged these mortgage regulators to impose suitability requirements on mortgage lenders... The reaction ... was roughly this: yes, some staff members had expressed such concerns, and yes, officials knew about the possibility that there was a bubble, but they weren’t taking any of us seriously. ...

Why do professional economists always seem to find that concerns with bubbles are overblown or unsubstantiated? I have wondered about this for years... It must have something to do with the tool kit given to economists (as opposed to psychologists) and perhaps even with the self-selection of those attracted to the technical, mathematical field of economics. Economists aren’t generally trained in psychology... They pride themselves on being rational. The notion that people are making huge errors in judgment is not appealing.

In addition, it seems that concerns about professional stature may blind us... We all want to associate ourselves with dignified people and dignified ideas. Speculative bubbles, and those who study them, have been deemed undignified. In short, Mr. Janis’s insights seem right on the mark. People compete for stature, and the ideas often just tag along. ...

I think there's some truth to this.

    Posted by on Saturday, November 1, 2008 at 02:25 PM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (80)

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