In the model [Gali, Smets and Wouters, Unemployment in an Estimated New Keyesian Model (2011)] there is perfect consumption insurance among the members of the household. Because of separability in utility, this implies that consumption is equalized across all workers, whether they are employed or not … Workers who find that they do not have to work are unemployed or out of the labor force, and they have cause to rejoice as a result. Unemployed workers enjoy higher utility than the employed because they receive the same level of consumption, but without having to work.
There is much evidence that in practice unemployment is not the happy experience it is for workers in the model. For example, Chetty and Looney (2006) and Gruber (1997) find that US households suffer roughly a 10 percent drop in consumption when they lose their job. According to Couch and Placzek (2010), workers displaced through mass layoffs suffer substantial and extended reductions in earnings. Moreover, Oreopoulos, Page and Stevens (2008) present evidence that the children of displaced workers also suffer reduced earnings. Additional evidence that unemployed workers suffer a reduction in utility include the results of direct interviews, as well as findings that unemployed workers experience poor health outcomes. Clark and Oswald (1994), Oswald (1997) and Schimmack, Schupp and Wagner (2008) describe evidence that suggests unemployment has a negative impact on a worker’s self-assessment of well being. Sullivan and von Wachter (2009) report that the mortality rates of high-seniority workers jump 50-100% more than would have been expected otherwise in the year after displacement. Cox and Koo (2006) report a significant positive correlation between male suicide and unemployment in Japan and the United States. For additional evidence that unemployment is associated with poor health outcomes, see Fergusson, Horwood and Lynskey (1997) and Karsten and Moser (2009) …
Suppose the CPS [Current Population Survey] employee encountered one of the people designated as “unemployed” … and asked if she were “available for work”. What would her answer be? She knows with certainty that she will not be employed in the current period. Privately, she is delighted about this because the non-employed enjoy higher utility than the employed … Not only is she happy about not having to work, but the labor union also does not want her to work. From the perspective of the union, her non-employment is a fundamental component of the union’s strategy for promoting the welfare of its membership.
To me these kind of ‘New Keynesian’ DSGE models, where unemployment is portrayed as a bliss, are a sign of a momentous failure to model real-world unemployment. It’s not only adding insult to injury — it’s also sad gibberish that shamelessly tries to whitewash neoliberal economic policies that put people out of work.
Being able to model a ‘credible’ DSGE world — how credible that world is, when depicting unemployment as a ‘happy experience’ and predicting the wage markup to increase with unemployment, I leave to the reader to decide — a world that somehow could be considered real or similar to the real world, is not the same as investigating the real world. Even though all theories are false, since they simplify, they may still possibly serve our pursuit of truth. But then they cannot be unrealistic or false in any way. The falsehood or unrealisticness has to be qualified.
The modeling convention used when constructing DSGE models makes it impossible to fully incorporate things that we know are of paramount importance for understanding modern economies — such as income and wealth inequality, asymmetrical power relations and information, liquidity preference, just to mention a few.
If substantive questions about the real world are being posed, it is the formalistic-mathematical representations utilized that have to match reality, not the other way around.
Trying to delineate the difference between ‘New Keynesianism’ and ‘Post Keynesianism’ — during an interview a couple of weeks ago — yours truly was confronted by the odd and confused view that Axel Leijonhufvud was a ‘New Keynesian.’ I wasn’t totally surprised — I had run into that misapprehension before — but still, it’s strange how wrong people sometimes get things.
The last time I met Axel, we were both invited keynote speakers at the conference “Keynes 125 Years – What Have We Learned?” in Copenhagen. Axel’s speech was later published as Keynes and the crisis and contains the following thought provoking passages:
So far I have argued that recent events should force us to re-examine recent monetary policy doctrine. Do we also need to reconsider modern macroeconomic theory in general? I should think so. Consider briefly a few of the issues.
The real interest rate … The problem is that the real interest rate does not exist in reality but is a constructed variable. What does exist is the money rate of interest from which one may construct a distribution of perceived real interest rates given some distribution of inflation expectations over agents. Intertemporal non-monetary general equilibrium (or finance) models deal in variables that have no real world counterparts. Central banks have considerable influence over money rates of interest as demonstrated, for example, by the Bank of Japan and now more recently by the Federal Reserve …
The representative agent. If all agents are supposed to have rational expectations, it becomes convenient to assume also that they all have the same expectation and thence tempting to jump to the conclusion that the collective of agents behaves as one. The usual objection to representative agent models has been that it fails to take into account well-documented systematic differences in behaviour between age groups, income classes, etc. In the financial crisis context, however, the objection is rather that these models are blind to the consequences of too many people doing the same thing at the same time, for example, trying to liquidate very similar positions at the same time. Representative agent models are peculiarly subject to fallacies of composition. The representative lemming is not a rational expectations intertemporal optimising creature. But he is responsible for the fat tail problem that macroeconomists have the most reason to care about …
For many years now, the main alternative to Real Business Cycle Theory has been a somewhat loose cluster of models given the label of New Keynesian theory. New Keynesians adhere on the whole to the same DSGE modeling technology as RBC macroeconomists but differ in the extent to which they emphasise inflexibilities of prices or other contract terms as sources of shortterm adjustment problems in the economy. The “New Keynesian” label refers back to the “rigid wages” brand of Keynesian theory of 40 or 50 years ago. Except for this stress on inflexibilities this brand of contemporary macroeconomic theory has basically nothing Keynesian about it.
The obvious objection to this kind of return to an earlier way of thinking about macroeconomic problems is that the major problems that have had to be confronted in the last twenty or so years have originated in the financial markets – and prices in those markets are anything but “inflexible”. But there is also a general theoretical problem that has been festering for decades with very little in the way of attempts to tackle it. Economists talk freely about “inflexible” or “rigid” prices all the time, despite the fact that we do not have a shred of theory that could provide criteria for judging whether a particular price is more or less flexible than appropriate to the proper functioning of the larger system. More than seventy years ago, Keynes already knew that a high degree of downward price flexibility in a recession could entirely wreck the financial system and make the situation infinitely worse. But the point of his argument has never come fully to inform the way economists think about price inflexibilities …
I began by arguing that there are three things we should learn from Keynes … The third was to ask whether events provedthat existing theory needed to be revised. On that issue, I conclude that dynamic stochastic general equilibrium theory has shown itself an intellectually bankrupt enterprise. But this does not mean that we should revert to the old Keynesian theory that preceded it (or adopt the New Keynesian theory that has tried to compete with it). What we need to learn from Keynes, instead, are these three lessons about how to view our responsibilities and how to approach our subject.
Axel Leijonhufvud a ‘New Keynesian’? Forget it!
In most aspects of their lives humans must plan forwards. They take decisions today that affect their future in complex interactions with the decisions of others. When taking such decisions, the available information is only ever a subset of the universe of past and present information, as no individual or group of individuals can be aware of all the relevant information. Hence, views or expectations about the future, relevant for their decisions, use a partial information set, formally expressed as a conditional expectation given the available information.
Moreover, all such views are predicated on there being no un-anticipated future changes in the environment pertinent to the decision. This is formally captured in the concept of ‘stationarity’. Without stationarity, good outcomes based on conditional expectations could not be achieved consistently. Fortunately, there are periods of stability when insights into the way that past events unfolded can assist in planning for the future.
The world, however, is far from completely stationary. Unanticipated events occur, and they cannot be dealt with using standard data-transformation techniques such as differencing, or by taking linear combinations, or ratios. In particular, ‘extrinsic unpredictability’ – unpredicted shifts of the distributions of economic variables at unanticipated times – is common. As we shall illustrate, extrinsic unpredictability has dramatic consequences for the standard macroeconomic forecasting models used by governments around the world – models known as ‘dynamic stochastic general equilibrium’ models – or DSGE models …
Many of the theoretical equations in DSGE models take a form in which a variable today, say incomes (denoted as yt) depends inter alia on its ‘expected future value’… For example, yt may be the log-difference between a de-trended level and its steady-state value. Implicitly, such a formulation assumes some form of stationarity is achieved by de-trending.
Unfortunately, in most economies, the underlying distributions can shift unexpectedly. This vitiates any assumption of stationarity. The consequences for DSGEs are profound. As we explain below, the mathematical basis of a DSGE model fails when distributions shift … This would be like a fire station automatically burning down at every outbreak of a fire. Economic agents are affected by, and notice such shifts. They consequently change their plans, and perhaps the way they form their expectations. When they do so, they violate the key assumptions on which DSGEs are built.
A great article, not only showing on what shaky mathematical basis DSGE models are built, but also confirming much of Keynes’s critique of econometrics, underlining that to understand real world ”non-routine” decisions and unforeseeable changes in behaviour, stationary probability distributions are of no avail. In a world full of genuine uncertainty — where real historical time rules the roost — the probabilities that ruled the past are not those that will rule the future.
Advocates of DSGE modeling want to have deductively automated answers to fundamental causal questions. But to apply “thin” methods we have to have “thick” background knowledge of what’s going on in the real world, and not in idealized models. Conclusions can only be as certain as their premises — and that also applies to the quest for causality and forecasting predictability in DSGE models.
The unsellability of DSGE models — private-sector firms do not pay lots of money to use DSGE models — is one strong argument against DSGE.
But it is not the most damning critique of it.
To me the most damning critiques that can be levelled against DSGE models are the following two:
(1) DSGE models are unable to explain involuntary unemployment
In the basic DSGE models the labour market is always cleared – responding to a changing interest rate, expected life time incomes, or real wages, the representative agent maximizes the utility function by varying her labour supply, money holding and consumption over time. Most importantly – if the real wage somehow deviates from its ‘equilibrium value,’ the representative agent adjust her labour supply, so that when the real wage is higher than its ‘equilibrium value,’ labour supply is increased, and when the real wage is below its ‘equilibrium value,’ labour supply is decreased.
In this model world, unemployment is always an optimal choice to changes in the labour market conditions. Hence, unemployment is totally voluntary. To be unemployed is something one optimally chooses to be.
Although this picture of unemployment as a kind of self-chosen optimality, strikes most people as utterly ridiculous, there are also, unfortunately, a lot of neoclassical economists out there who still think that price and wage rigidities are the prime movers behind unemployment. DSGE models basically explains variations in employment (and a fortiori output) with assuming nominal wages being more flexible than prices – disregarding the lack of empirical evidence for this rather counterintuitive assumption.
Lowering nominal wages would not clear the labour market. Lowering wages – and possibly prices – could, perhaps, lower interest rates and increase investment. It would be much easier to achieve that effect by increasing the money supply. In any case, wage reductions was not seen as a general substitute for an expansionary monetary or fiscal policy. And even if potentially positive impacts of lowering wages exist, there are also more heavily weighing negative impacts – management-union relations deteriorating, expectations of on-going lowering of wages causing delay of investments, debt deflation et cetera.
The classical proposition that lowering wages would lower unemployment and ultimately take economies out of depressions, was ill-founded and basically wrong. Flexible wages would probably only make things worse by leading to erratic price-fluctuations. The basic explanation for unemployment is insufficient aggregate demand, and that is mostly determined outside the labour market.
Obviously it’s rather embarrassing that the kind of DSGE models ‘modern’ macroeconomists use cannot incorporate such a basic fact of reality as involuntary unemployment. Of course, working with representative agent models, this should come as no surprise. The kind of unemployment that occurs is voluntary, since it is only adjustments of the hours of work that these optimizing agents make to maximize their utility.
(2) In DSGE models increases in government spending leads to a drop in private consumption
In the most basic mainstream proto-DSGE models one often assumes that governments finance current expenditures with current tax revenues. This will have a negative income effect on the households, leading — rather counterintuitively — to a drop in private consumption although both employment an production expands. This mechanism also holds when the (in)famous Ricardian equivalence is added to the models.
Ricardian equivalence basically means that financing government expenditures through taxes or debts is equivalent, since debt financing must be repaid with interest, and agents — equipped with rational expectations — would only increase savings in order to be able to pay the higher taxes in the future, thus leaving total expenditures unchanged.
In the standard neoclassical consumption model — used in DSGE macroeconomic modeling — people are basically portrayed as treating time as a dichotomous phenomenon – today and the future — when contemplating making decisions and acting. How much should one consume today and how much in the future? Facing an intertemporal budget constraint of the form
ct + cf/(1+r) = ft + yt + yf/(1+r),
where ct is consumption today, cf is consumption in the future, ft is holdings of financial assets today, yt is labour incomes today, yf is labour incomes in the future, and r is the real interest rate, and having a lifetime utility function of the form
U = u(ct) + au(cf),
where a is the time discounting parameter, the representative agent (consumer) maximizes his utility when
u'(ct) = a(1+r)u'(cf).
This expression – the Euler equation – implies that the representative agent (consumer) is indifferent between consuming one more unit today or instead consuming it tomorrow. Typically using a logarithmic function form – u(c) = log c – which gives u'(c) = 1/c, the Euler equation can be rewritten as
1/ct = a(1+r)(1/cf),
cf/ct = a(1+r).
This importantly implies that according to the neoclassical consumption model changes in the (real) interest rate and consumption move in the same direction. And — it also follows that consumption is invariant to the timing of taxes, since wealth — ft + yt + yf/(1+r) — has to be interpreted as present discounted value net of taxes. And so, according to the assumption of Ricardian equivalence, the timing of taxes does not affect consumption, simply because the maximization problem as specified in the model is unchanged. As a result — households cut down on their consumption when governments increase their spendings. Mirabile dictu!
Benchmark DSGE models have paid little attention to the role of fiscal policy, therefore minimising any possible interaction of fiscal policies with monetary policy. This has been partly because of the assumption of Ricardian equivalence. As a result, the distribution of taxes across time become irrelevant and aggregate financial wealth does not matter for the behavior of agents or for the dynamics of the economy because bonds do not represent net real wealth for households.
Incorporating more meaningfully the role of fiscal policies requires abandoning frameworks with the Ricardian equivalence. The question is how to break the Ricardian equivalence? Two possibilities are available. The first is to move to an overlapping generations framework and the second (which has been the most common way of handling the problem) is to rely on an infinite-horizon model with a type of liquidity constrained agents (eg “rule of thumb agents”).
Yours truly totally agree that macroeconomic models have to abandon Ricardian equivalence nonsense. But replacing it with “overlapping generations” and “infinite-horizon” models — isn’t that — in terms of realism and relevance — just getting out of the frying pan into the fire? All unemployment is still voluntary. Intertemporal substitution between labour and leisure is still ubiquitous. And the specification of the utility function is still hopelessly off the mark from an empirical point of view.
As one Nobel laureate had it:
Ricardian equivalence is taught in every graduate school in the country. It is also sheer nonsense.
Joseph E. Stiglitz, twitter
And as one economics blogger has it:
DSGE modeling is taught in every graduate school in the country. It is also sheer nonsense.
Lars Syll, twitter
The U.S. economy has, on the whole, done pretty well these past 180 years, suggesting that having the government owe the private sector money might not be all that bad a thing. The British government, by the way, has been in debt for more than three centuries, an era spanning the Industrial Revolution, victory over Napoleon, and more.
But is the point simply that public debt isn’t as bad as legend has it? Or can government debt actually be a good thing?
Believe it or not, many economists argue that the economy needs a sufficient amount of public debt out there to function well. And how much is sufficient? Maybe more than we currently have. That is, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that part of what ails the world economy right now is that governments aren’t deep enough in debt.
Krugman is absolutely right.
Through history public debts have gone up and down, often expanding in periods of war or large changes in basic infrastructure and technologies, and then going down in periods when things have settled down.
The pros and cons of public debt have been put forward for as long as the phenomenon itself has existed, but it has, notwithstanding that, not been possible to reach anything close to consensus on the issue — at least not in a long time-horizon perspective. One has as a rule not even been able to agree on whether public debt is a problem, and if — when it is or how to best tackle it. Some of the more prominent reasons for this non-consensus are the complexity of the issue, the mingling of vested interests, ideology, psychological fears, the uncertainty of calculating ad estimating inter-generational effects, etc., etc.
In classical economics — following in the footsteps of David Hume – especially Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Jean-Baptiste Say put forward views on public debt that was as a rule negative. The good budget was a balanced budget. If government borrowed money to finance its activities, it would only give birth to “crowding out” private enterprise and investments. The state was generally considered incapable if paying its debts, and the real burden would therefor essentially fall on the taxpayers that ultimately had to pay for the irresponsibility of government. The moral character of the argumentation was a salient feature — according to Hume, “either the nation must destroy public credit, or the public credit will destroy the nation.”
Later on in the 20th century economists like John Maynard Keynes, Abba Lerner and Alvin Hansen would hold a more positive view on public debt. Public debt was normally nothing to fear, especially if it was financed within the country itself (but even foreign loans could be beneficient for the economy if invested in the right way). Some members of society would hold bonds and earn interest on them, while others would have to pay the taxes that ultimately paid the interest on the debt. But the debt was not considered a net burden for society as a whole, since the debt cancelled itself out between the two groups. If the state could issue bonds at a low interest rate, unemployment could be reduced without necessarily resulting in strong inflationary pressure. And the inter-generational burden was no real burden according to this group of economists, since — if used in a suitable way — the debt would, through its effects on investments and employment, actually be net winners. There could, of course, be unwanted negative distributional side effects, for the future generation, but that was mostly considered a minor problem since, as Lerner put it,“if our children or grandchildren repay some of the national debt these payments will be made to our children and grandchildren and to nobody else.”
Central to the Keynesian influenced view is the fundamental difference between private and public debt. Conflating the one with the other is an example of the atomistic fallacy, which is basically a variation on Keynes’ savings paradox. If an individual tries to save and cut down on debts, that may be fine and rational, but if everyone tries to do it, the result would be lower aggregate demand and increasing unemployment for the economy as a whole.
An individual always have to pay his debts. But a government can always pay back old debts with new, through the issue of new bonds. The state is not like an individual. Public debt is not like private debt. Government debt is essentially a debt to itself, its citizens. Interest paid on the debt is paid by the taxpayers on the one hand, but on the other hand, interest on the bonds that finance the debts goes to those who lend out the money.
To both Keynes and Lerner it was evident that the state had the ability to promote full employment and a stable price level – and that it should use its powers to do so. If that meant that it had to take on a debt and (more or less temporarily) underbalance its budget – so let it be! Public debt is neither good nor bad. It is a means to achieving two over-arching macroeconomic goals – full employment and price stability. What is sacred is not to have a balanced budget or running down public debt per se, regardless of the effects on the macroeconomic goals. If “sound finance”, austerity and a balanced budgets means increased unemployment and destabilizing prices, they have to be abandoned.
Now against this reasoning, exponents of the thesis of Ricardian equivalence, have maintained that whether the public sector finances its expenditures through taxes or by issuing bonds is inconsequential, since bonds must sooner or later be repaid by raising taxes in the future.
In the 1970s Robert Barro attempted to give the proposition a firm theoretical foundation, arguing that the substitution of a budget deficit for current taxes has no impact on aggregate demand and so budget deficits and taxation have equivalent effects on the economy.
The Ricardo-Barro hypothesis, with its view of public debt incurring a burden for future generations, is the dominant view among mainstream economists and politicians today. The rational people making up the actors in the model are assumed to know that today’s debts are tomorrow’s taxes. But — one of the main problems with this standard neoclassical theory is, however, that it doesn’t fit the facts.
From a more theoretical point of view, one may also strongly criticize the Ricardo-Barro model and its concomitant crowding out assumption, since perfect capital markets do not exist and repayments of public debt can take place far into the future and it’s dubious if we really care for generations 300 years from now.
Today there seems to be a rather widespread consensus of public debt being acceptable as long as it doesn’t increase too much and too fast. If the public debt-GDP ratio becomes higher than X % the likelihood of debt crisis and/or lower growth increases.
But in discussing within which margins public debt is feasible, the focus, however, is solely on the upper limit of indebtedness, and very few asks the question if maybe there is also a problem if public debt becomes too low.
The government’s ability to conduct an “optimal” public debt policy may be negatively affected if public debt becomes too small. To guarantee a well-functioning secondary market in bonds it is essential that the government has access to a functioning market. If turnover and liquidity in the secondary market becomes too small, increased volatility and uncertainty will in the long run lead to an increase in borrowing costs. Ultimately there’s even a risk that market makers would disappear, leaving bond market trading to be operated solely through brokered deals. As a kind of precautionary measure against this eventuality it may be argued – especially in times of financial turmoil and crises — that it is necessary to increase government borrowing and debt to ensure – in a longer run – good borrowing preparedness and a sustained (government) bond market.
The question if public debt is good and that we may actually have to little of it is one of our time’s biggest questions. Giving the wrong answer to it — as Krugman notices — will be costly:
The great debt panic that warped the U.S. political scene from 2010 to 2012, and still dominates economic discussion in Britain and the eurozone, was even more wrongheaded than those of us in the anti-austerity camp realized.
Not only were governments that listened to the fiscal scolds kicking the economy when it was down, prolonging the slump; not only were they slashing public investment at the very moment bond investors were practically pleading with them to spend more; they may have been setting us up for future crises.
And the ironic thing is that these foolish policies, and all the human suffering they created, were sold with appeals to prudence and fiscal responsibility.
We are not going to get out of the economic doldrums as long as we continue to be obsessed with the unreasoned ideological goal of reducing the so-called deficit. The “deficit” is not an economic sin but an economic necessity …
The administration is trying to bring the Titanic into harbor with a canoe paddle, while Congress is arguing over whether to use an oar or a paddle, and the Perot’s and budget balancers seem eager to lash the helm hard-a-starboard towards the iceberg. Some of the argument seems to be over which foot is the better one to shoot ourselves in. We have the resources in terms of idle manpower and idle plants to do so much, while the preachers of austerity, most of whom are in little danger of themselves suffering any serious consequences, keep telling us to tighten our belts and refrain from using the resources that lay idle all around us.
Alexander Hamilton once wrote “A national debt, if it be not excessive, would be for us a national treasure.” William Jennings Bryan used to declaim, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Today’s cross is not made of gold, but is concocted of a web of obfuscatory financial rectitude from which human values have been expunged.
Most mainstream economists think ‘modern’ economics looks like this:
In reality, I would argue, it looks more like this:
In conclusion, one can say that the sympathy that some of the traditional and Post-Keynesian authors show towards DSGE models is rather hard to understand. Even before the recent financial and economic crisis put some weaknesses of the model – such as the impossibility of generating asset price bubbles or the lack of inclusion of financial sector issues – into the spotlight and brought them even to the attention of mainstream media, the models’ inner working were highly questionable from the very beginning. While one can understand that some of the elements in DSGE models seem to appeal to Keynesians at first sight, after closer examination, these models are in fundamental contradiction to Post-Keynesian and even traditional Keynesian thinking. The DSGE model is a model in which output is determined in the labour market as in New Classical models and in which aggregate demand plays only a very secondary role, even in the short run.
In addition, given the fundamental philosophical problems presented for the use of DSGE models for policy simulation, namely the fact that a number of parameters used have completely implausible magnitudes and that the degree of freedom for different parameters is so large that DSGE models with fundamentally different parametrization (and therefore different policy conclusions) equally well produce time series which fit the real-world data, it is also very hard to understand why DSGE models have reached such a prominence in economic science in general.
Neither New Classical nor ‘New Keynesian’ microfounded DSGE macro models have helped us foresee, understand or craft solutions to the problems of today’s economies. But still most young academic macroeconomists want to work with DSGE models. After reading Dullien’s article, that certainly should be a very worrying confirmation of economics — at least from the point of view of realism and relevance — becoming more and more a waste of time. Why do these young bright guys waste their time and efforts? Besides aspirations of being published, I think maybe Frank Hahn gave the truest answer back in 2005, when interviewed on the occasion of his 80th birthday, he confessed that some economic assumptions didn’t really say anything about ‘what happens in the world,’ but still had to be considered very good ‘because it allows us to get on this job.’