Confidence, Fear and a Propensity to Gamble: The Puzzle of War and Economics in an Age of Catastrophe 1914-45
by Roger L. Ransom (firstname.lastname@example.org) (University of California at Riverside)
This paper uses the notion of animal spirits introduced by John Maynard Keynes in the General Theory and more recently employed by George Akerloff and Robert Shiller in their book Animal Spirits, to explain the speculative bubbles and decisions for war from 1914 to 1945. Animal spirits are “a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction” that produces decisions which are not bounded by “rational” calculations. My analysis shows how confidence, fear, and a propensity to gamble can encourage aggressive behavior that leads to speculative “bubbles” in financial markets and military or political crises. Elements of prospect theory are added to demonstrate how the presence of risk in crises tend to produce a very strong bias towards taking gambles to avoid economic or military loses. A basic premise of the paper is that war and economics were inexorably joined together by 1914 to a point where economic strength was as important as military might in determining the outcome of a war. The final section of the paper deals with the problem of measuring military and economic strength by using the composite index of national capability [CINC] created by the Correlates of War Project to evaluate the riskiness of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914 and the changes in military capability of major powers between 1914-1919
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Reviewed by Mark J Crowley
This paper surveys the impact of war on economic stability, and the role that confidence and fear plays in the nature of the economy and economic development. It provides an interesting addition to the historiography, especially since numerous similar studies have concentrated on the social ramifications of war, most notably the correlation between armed conflict and social change first identified by Arthur Marwick in the 1970s.
Using the framework of ‘animal spirits’, first advanced by John Maynard Keynes in his classical General Theory study of 1936, Ransom shows how emotion and rationality have governed many of the economic cycles that ensued as a result of war and peace. He shows that decisions based on instinct were often the driver of many deep-rooted changes that would impact on long-term economic stability. With the perception among policymakers that interwar years (i.e. the period after the First World War) would lead to a period of significant economic instability, he shows how major world leaders often took gambles – some of which paid off, but some of which had deep consequences that not only changed the course of war, but also affected long-term economic performance.
In identifying the limitations of economic history analyses in this area, Ransom argues that the uncertainties caused by war and the transition to a peacetime economy leads to several difficulties. For economists, no real models exist for the predictions of uncertainty or volatility, whereas outcomes can, to a certain degree of accuracy, be predicted. Furthermore, he claims that in countries where the economy was growing and the war effort was achieving positive aims, leaders were thus operating in a ‘confidence bubble.’ Yet while this progress could be regarded as positive for the nation, the implications for the economy were not always fruitful, especially since the impact of emotion on leaders’ psyche meant that despite these developments, leaders and planners did not always act rationally. In explaining this phenomenon, Ransom draws on Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tverskey’s 1979 ‘Prospect theory’ in which they argue that many leaders have focused on the results they think are really possible while also seeking to avoid large losses. This, in turn, has served to cloud judgement with regard to the possibilities open to make significant gains.
In the final part of the paper, Ransom shows how historians have used the Composite Index of National Capability in order to assess a nation’s capability to wage a war. The test, comprising six areas includes: military personnel; military expenditure; total population; urban population; primary energy consumption; and iron and steel consumption. This approach looks at these aspects and divides each nation by the overall global variable. While not totally reliable, it can offer possibilities to explain why leaders, in preparation for, and in prosecution of, war have changed strategies according to national needs. Using the Battle of the Marne during the First World War as an example, Ransom shows how this acted as a ‘tipping point’ in the German prosecution of the war effort – the failure of which saw confidence turn into fear and the widely-regarded failure of General Schlieffen to discharge Germany’s military capability in the most effective way. Thus the idea that economics formed the foundation a nation’s military capability after the First World War has now received greater attention.
This paper is fascinating for the way that it shows the impact of emotion and human rationality on economics. In terms of economic policymaking, little attention has been dedicated to the role of emotion and human behaviour on the economic decisions taken that, in turn, had a fundamental impact on the trajectory of war.
The interesting aspect of this paper lies in the way that Ransom uses case studies to show how wars, and the pressures placed on leaders, could have influenced their state of mind concerning their economic decisions. The approach is geo-political. This is particularly useful, since the importance of international relations would have impacted severely on a nation’s economic capability. However, what could also be of interest is a consideration of the response on the home front to the challenges brought about by war and peace, and how the opinions of ordinary citizens may or may not have influenced those in positions of power. For example, in the British case, the Ministry of Information during the Second World War commissioned surveys of the home front to ascertain people’s opinions on a wide range of topics, of which the condition of the economy featured heavily. The social research organisation, Mass Observation, also conducted similar surveys so as to inform the government of the home front’s condition, and how it could be maintained to ensure solidarity for the war effort. At the core of many citizens’ grievances was the nature of the economy, especially rising food prices. While ascertaining this information in a transnational study such as this may not be easy, perhaps a little more focus on citizens’ opinions of economy and the prosecution of the war effort would provide a wider framework in which to understand the influences on world leaders when making decisions controlling the trajectory of their nation’s economies in war and peace.
Jefferys, Kevin (ed.), War and Reform: British Politics during the Second World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994).
Marwick, Arthur, War and social change in the twentieth century: a comparative study of Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States (London: Macmillan, 1974).
Milward, Alan S., War, Economy and Society, 1939-45 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987).
Minns, Raynes, Bombers and Mash: The Domestic Front, 1939-45 (London: Virago, 1980).