Teaching macroeconomics

19 March, 2016 at 11:42 | Posted in Economics | 2 Comments

To what extent has – or should – the teaching of economics be modified in the light of the current economic crisis? … For macroeconomists in particular, the reaction has been to suggest that modifications of existing models to take account of ‘frictions’ or ‘imperfections’ will be enough …

However, other economists such as myself feel that we have finally reached the turning point in economics where we have to radically change the way we conceive of and model the economy … Rather than making steady progress towards explaining economic phenomena professional economists have been locked into a narrow vision of the economy. We constantly make more and more sophisticated models within that vision until, as Bob Solow put it, ‘the uninitiated peasant is left wondering what planet he or she is on’ …

Every student in economics is faced with the model of the isolated optimising individual who makes his choices within the constraints imposed by the market. Somehow, the axioms of rationality imposed on this individual are not very convincing … But the student is told that the aim of the exercise is to show that there is an equilibrium, there can be prices that will clear all markets simultaneously. And, furthermore, the student is taught that such an equilibrium has desirable welfare properties. Importantly, the student is told that since the 1970s it has been known that whilst such a system of equilibrium prices may exist, we cannot show that the economy would ever reach an equilibrium nor that such an equilibrium is unique.

The student then moves on to macroeconomics and is told that the aggregate economy or market behaves just like the average individual she has just studied. She is not told that these general models in fact poorly reflect reality. For the macroeconomist, this is a boon since he can now analyse the aggregate allocations in an economy as though they were the result of the rational choices made by one individual. The student may find this even more difficult to swallow when she is aware that peoples’ preferences, choices and forecasts are often influenced by those of the other participants in the economy. Students take a long time to accept the idea that the economy’s choices can be assimilated to those of one individual …

We owe it to our students to point out difficulties with the structure and assumptions of our theory. Although we are still far from a paradigm shift, in the longer run the paradigm will inevitably change. We would all do well to remember that current economic thought will one day be taught as history of economic thought.

Alan Kirman 

Where ‘New Keynesian’ and New Classical economists think that they can rigorously deduce the aggregate effects of (representative) actors with their reductionist microfoundational methodology, they — as argued in chapter 4 of yours truly’s On the use and misuse of theories and models in mainstream economics — have to put a blind eye on the emergent properties that characterize all open social and economic systems. The interaction between animal spirits, trust, confidence, institutions, etc., cannot be deduced or reduced to a question answerable on the individual level. Macroeconomic structures and phenomena have to be analyzed also on their own terms.

These models try to describe and analyze complex and heterogeneous real economies with a single rational-expectations-robot-imitation-representative-agent. That is, with something that has absolutely nothing to do with reality. And — worse still — something that is not even amenable to the kind of general equilibrium analysis that they are thought to give a foundation for, since Hugo Sonnenschein (1972) , Rolf Mantel (1976) and Gerard Debreu (1974) unequivocally showed that there did not exist any condition by which assumptions on individuals would guarantee neither stability nor uniqueness of the equlibrium solution.

New Classical, Real Business Cycles, Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (DSGE) and ‘New Keynesian’ macroeconomics with their microfounded macromodels are bad substitutes for real macroeconomic analysis. Opting for cloned representative agents that are all identical is of course not a real solution to the fallacy of composition that the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu theorem points to. Representative agent models are rather an evasion whereby issues of distribution, coordination, heterogeneity — everything that really defines macroeconomics — are swept under the rug.



  1. With due respect to Kirman and what he has said here in the quoted passage, what is he waiting for? Does he need me to tell him there are very few actual markets in this supposed market economy of ours?
    News flash! The actual economy is not a self-regulating system of markets approaching a general equilibrium in price. The accumulation of logical argument and evidence on this point would seem sufficient. Kirman says we are “far from a paradigm shift” and talks about the obligation to point out problems with the structure and assumptions of the theory. How about this? The theory is completely topsy turvy wrong! Is that a problem that ought to be pointed out?

  2. Not only are there very few actual markets, but general equilibrium theory doesn’t even study markets. It studies a magically perfect command economy. Literally.

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