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Waking animal spirits

It's strange that only businessmen need animal spirits to help them work, while doctors, engineers and teachers get along very well without them.

columns Updated: Jun 30, 2012 22:58 IST
Manas Chakravarty

Manmohan Singh talks of reviving animal spirits in the economy.

-The Economic Times, June 28, 2012

There's no doubt the economy badly needs to be revived. But the question I'm often asked is a more profound one: why animal spirits? Some folks feel insulted that ordinary human spirits don't seem to be good enough for the prime minister (PM). I've tried to soothe their feelings, pointing out that the PM is referring to the famous economist John Maynard Keynes, who believed that a buoyant economy was dependent on "spontaneous optimism", which he called animal spirits. The human spirit, on the other hand, prone to brooding on existence while sipping beer and sitting in front of the TV watching football, is no good for the economy.

The simple fact is that the human spirit is too sensitive for the kind of money-grubbing work needed. Nobody talks about requiring animal spirits for winning a race, or writing a book, or solving a math equation. And it's strange that only businessmen need animal spirits to help them work, while doctors, engineers and teachers get along very well without them. What we need is low animal cunning, brute force and cash cows in the dog-eat-dog world of business. It's enough to get any human spirit's goat.

Keynes is saying there's something about business that brings out the animal in you. True, many of us have never come across animals preparing a balance sheet, or making a sales pitch, or setting up a factory, but maybe we haven't looked hard enough. Once you know where to look, you might detect Vijay Mallya's inner bunny or Mukesh Ambani's inner frog peeping out or even Narayana Murthy's wise old owl.

It's no wonder then that we have the Asian tiger economies, the Chinese dragon and the Indian elephant. Not to mention the dark horses. Then we have the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) - the tottering economies of Europe. And of course we have the bulls and bears and the cock and bull stories in the stock market.

That brings me to the crux of the problem. The big question is: which animal spirit are we talking about here? Are birds included? What about insects? Don't forget the cockroach has survived for many millions of years. Surely its spirit has learned a trick or two by now?

The Chinese calendar says the tiger person is authoritative, emotional, courageous and intense while the dragon guy is fearless, warm-hearted and energetic. But the calendar also says the rat chap is quick-witted, charming, smart and persuasive, all qualities essential for business success. Will the rat spirit revive the economy? Other animal qualities that would be helpful are being as brave as a lion, as cunning as a fox and as strong as an ox.

But it's also important to separate the sheep from the goats. Getting as drunk as a skunk, being blind as a bat or as dead as a dodo is bad for business. Avoid the skunk, bat and dodo spirits. The cat spirit is dead, curiosity killed it. And the spirit of a mouse would also not be right. Ask the PM, he should know.

But wait a bit, could we be barking up the wrong tree? When they talked of animal spirits, perhaps what they really meant was cocktails? In particular, they are probably referring to Salty Dog, Brass Monkey, Caribou Lou, Moscow Mule and Pink Squirrel. These spirits, generously imbibed, will soon impart the confidence and courage desperately needed by businessmen, consumers and workers to get the economy moving again.

Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint. Views expressed by the author are personal.