Macroeconomic just-so stories you really do not want to buy

22 April, 2016 at 17:30 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

pinnocThus your standard New Keynesian model will use Calvo pricing and model the current inflation rate as tightly coupled to the present value of expected future output gaps. Is this a requirement anyone really wants to put on the model intended to help us understand the world that actually exists out there? Thus your standard New Keynesian model will calculate the expected path of consumption as the solution to some Euler equation plus an intertemporal budget constraint, with current wealth and the projected real interest rate path as the only factors that matter. This is fine if you want to demonstrate that the model can produce macroeconomic pathologies. But is it a not-stupid thing to do if you want your model to fit reality?

I remember attending the first lecture in Tom Sargent’s evening macroeconomics class back when I was in undergraduate: very smart man from whom I have learned the enormous amount, and well deserving his Nobel Prize. But…

He said … we were going to build a rigorous, micro founded model of the demand for money: We would assume that everyone lived for two periods, worked in the first period when they were young and sold what they produced to the old, held money as they aged, and then when they were old use their money to buy the goods newly produced by the new generation of young. Tom called this “microfoundations” and thought it gave powerful insights into the demand for money that you could not get from money-in-the-utility-function models.

I thought that it was a just-so story, and that whatever insights it purchased for you were probably not things you really wanted to buy. I thought it was dangerous to presume that you understood something because you had “microfoundations” when those microfoundations were wrong. After all, Ptolemaic astronomy had microfoundations: Mercury moved more rapidly than Saturn because the Angel of Mercury left his wings more rapidly than the Angel of Saturn and because Mercury was lighter than Saturn…

Brad DeLong

Brad DeLong is of course absolutely right here, and one could only wish that other mainstream economists would listen to him …

Oxford macroeconomist Simon Wren-Lewis elaborates in a post on his blog on why he thinks the New Classical Counterrevolution was so successful in replacing older theories, despite the fact that the New Classical models were not able to explain what happened to output and inflation in the 1970s and 1980s:

The new theoretical ideas New Classical economists brought to the table were impressive, particularly to those just schooled in graduate micro. Rational expectations is the clearest example …

However, once the basics of New Keynesian theory had been established, it was quite possible to incorporate concepts like rational expectations or Ricardian Eqivalence into a traditional structural econometric model (SEM) …

The real problem with any attempt at synthesis is that a SEM is always going to be vulnerable to the key criticism in Lucas and Sargent, 1979: without a completely consistent microfounded theoretical base, there was the near certainty of inconsistency brought about by inappropriate identification restrictions …

So why does this matter? … If mainstream academic macroeconomists were seduced by anything, it was a methodology – a way of doing the subject which appeared closer to what at least some of their microeconomic colleagues were doing at the time, and which was very different to the methodology of macroeconomics before the New Classical Counterrevolution. The old methodology was eclectic and messy, juggling the competing claims of data and theory. The new methodology was rigorous!

Unlike Brad DeLong, Wren-Lewis seems to be impressed by the ‘rigour’ brought to macroeconomics by the New Classical counterrevolution and its rational expectations, microfoundations and ‘Lucas Critique’.

It is difficult to see why.

3634flimWren-Lewis’s ‘portrayal’ of rational expectations is not as innocent as it may look. Rational expectations in the neoclassical economists’s world implies that relevant distributions have to be time independent. This amounts to assuming that an economy is like a closed system with known stochastic probability distributions for all different events. In reality it is straining one’s beliefs to try to represent economies as outcomes of stochastic processes. An existing economy is a single realization tout court, and hardly conceivable as one realization out of an ensemble of economy-worlds, since an economy can hardly be conceived as being completely replicated over time. It is — to say the least — very difficult to see any similarity between these modelling assumptions and the expectations of real persons. In the world of the rational expectations hypothesis we are never disappointed in any other way than as when we lose at the roulette wheels. But real life is not an urn or a roulette wheel. And that’s also the reason why allowing for cases where agents ‘make predictable errors’ in the ‘New Keynesian’ models doesn’t take us a closer to a relevant and realist depiction of actual economic decisions and behaviours. If we really want to have anything of interest to say on real economies, financial crisis and the decisions and choices real people make we have to replace the rational expectations hypothesis with more relevant and realistic assumptions concerning economic agents and their expectations than childish roulette and urn analogies.

‘Rigorous’ and ‘precise’ New Classical models — and that goes for the ‘New Keynesian’ variety too — cannot be considered anything else than unsubstantiated conjectures as long as they aren’t supported by evidence from outside the theory or model. To my knowledge no in any way decisive empirical evidence has been presented.


No matter how precise and rigorous the analysis, and no matter how hard one tries to cast the argument in modern mathematical form, they do not push economic science forwards one single millimeter if they do not stand the acid test of relevance to the target. No matter how clear, precise, rigorous or certain the inferences delivered inside these models are, they do not per se say anything about real world economies.

Proving things ‘rigorously’ in mathematical models is at most a starting-point for doing an interesting and relevant economic analysis. Forgetting to supply export warrants to the real world makes the analysis an empty exercise in formalism without real scientific value.

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