When We Swarm

July 24, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

Economists study individual and group human behavior as we try to satisfy our needs. Sometimes the sum of the quests for individual satisfaction produces an outcome that is unexpected or contradictory to the aims of each individual’s choices. People may synchronize their behavior to a point that their accumulated actions overload a system, causing it to become dangerously unbalanced and lead to a collapse. Our modern communication systems may introduce more frequent panics, more opportunities for reactionary zeal and anger.

During the Great Depression, the economist John Maynard Keynes proposed a Paradox of Thrift. Saving money is a prudent choice for each person but if too many people decide to save money at the same time, economic activity declines. An extreme example is the 2008 financial crisis and recession when millions of people decided to curtail their current spending, the blue line in the graph below, and increase their savings. This is the power of uncoordinated expectations. We act sometimes as if our actions were being choreographed.

These paradoxes introduce contradictions that challenge our assumptions and ideologies and cause a lot of disagreement among economists and the public. In an EconTalk (2009) podcast, economist Steve Fazzari explained the immediate consequences of the Paradox of Thrift. In an effort to save money for college, a family foregoes their weekly meal out at a nearby restaurant. At the first occurrence, the family saves money which they deposit in a bank savings account. The next day the restaurant owner must withdraw that same amount from the restaurant’s savings to make up for the lost revenue. In that immediate time frame, there is no increase in savings/investment and this violates the ideologies of some listeners. As the pattern continues, the restaurant owner will adjust her expectations for revenue and lay off some workers. The podcast listeners interpreted Fazzari’s analogy in several different ways. They could not agree on what a short time frame is or the scope of the story.

We see and hear words and events differently yet sometimes respond in a seemingly coordinated fashion. Our panicked response may cause or amplify the very thing we fear. In September 2008, banks and investment firms lost trust in the soundness of each other’s assets. The loss of confidence caused the value of those assets to plummet, actualizing the fear. The Fed and central banks around the world struggled to contain the panic as the global financial system seized up like an engine without oil. In March 2020, central banks were better prepared, flooding the markets with liquidity at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Still we swarmed onto the streets, emptying shelves of merchandise ahead of lockdowns.

Every culture has its account of the consequences of humankind’s hubris, a lesson in the perils of our own arrogance. The Bible accounted for the variety of languages with the story of the Tower of Babel. Our phones connect us to the information hive, instantly relaying breaking news in our language of choice. The internet brings us together and drives us apart. As our communications become more rapid and extensive, we increase the likelihood of global panics, an unplanned reaction to some event. Fringe groups become more adept at coordinating their anger and actions like they did at the Capitol on January 6th. Our culture evolves with our technology but our laws are slow to adapt. Our mechanism of lawmaking, adapted to a horse and buggy age of communication, will have to be redesigned before it breaks apart our society, our culture and our union.


Photo by Ante Hamersmit on Unsplash

EconTalk. (2022, April 21). Fazzari on Keynesian economics. Econlib. Retrieved July 23, 2022, from https://www.econtalk.org/fazzari-on-keynesian-economics/#c57267

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