‘Modern’ macroeconomics — a costly waste of time

22 September, 2016 at 16:58 | Posted in Economics | 2 Comments

Commenting on the state of standard modern macroeconomics, Willem Buiter argues that 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:

buiterThe Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England I was privileged to be a ‘founder’ external member of during the years 1997-2000 contained, like its successor vintages of external and executive members, quite a strong representation of academic economists and other professional economists with serious technical training and backgrounds. This turned out to be a severe handicap when the central bank had to switch gears and change from being an inflation-targeting central bank under conditions of orderly financial markets to a financial stability-oriented central bank under conditions of widespread market illiquidity and funding illiquidity. Indeed, the typical graduate macroeconomics and monetary economics training received at Anglo-American universities during the past 30 years or so, may have set back by decades serious investigations of aggregate economic behaviour and economic policy-relevant understanding. It was a privately and socially costly waste of time and other resources.

Most mainstream macroeconomic theoretical innovations since the 1970s … have turned out to be self-referential, inward-looking distractions at best. Research tended to be motivated by the internal logic, intellectual sunk capital and aesthetic puzzles of established research programmes rather than by a powerful desire to understand how the economy works …

Both the New Classical and New Keynesian complete markets macroeconomic theories not only did not allow questions about insolvency and illiquidity to be answered. They did not allow such questions to be asked …

Charles Goodhart, who was fortunate enough not to encounter complete markets macroeconomics and monetary economics during his impressionable, formative years, but only after he had acquired some intellectual immunity, once said of the Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium approach which for a while was the staple of central banks’ internal modelling: “It excludes everything I am interested in”. He was right. It excludes everything relevant to the pursuit of financial stability.

The Bank of England in 2007 faced the onset of the credit crunch with too much Robert Lucas, Michael Woodford and Robert Merton in its intellectual cupboard. A drastic but chaotic re-education took place and is continuing.

I believe that the Bank has by now shed the conventional wisdom of the typical macroeconomics training of the past few decades. In its place is an intellectual potpourri of factoids, partial theories, empirical regularities without firm theoretical foundations, hunches, intuitions and half-developed insights. It is not much, but knowing that you know nothing is the beginning of wisdom.

Reading Buiter’s article is certainly a very worrying confirmation of what Paul Romer wrote last week. Modern macroeconomics is becoming more and more a total waste of time.

But why are all these macro guys wasting their time and efforts on these models? Besides simply having the usual 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.”

Hahn’s suggestion reminds me of an episode, twenty years ago, when Phil Mirowski was invited to give a speech on themes from his book More Heat than Light at my economics department in Lund, Sweden. All the mainstream neoclassical professors were there. Their theories were totally mangled and no one — absolutely no one — had anything to say even remotely reminiscent of a defense. Being at a nonplus, one of them, in total desperation, finally asked “But what shall we do then?”

Yes indeed — what shall they do when their emperor has turned out to be naked?

2 Comments »

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  1. What this shows, not for the first time, is that models of the economy that incorporate the EMH — and this includes the complete markets core of the New Classical and New Keynesian macroeconomics — are not models of decentralised market economies, but models of a centrally planned economy.

    Indeed! A nice catch on the financial economics side. Of course, in regular economic theory, so-called “perfect competition” models and general equilibrium theory (including its so-called “existence” theorem) are equally and indisputably models of the (perfectly!) centrally-planned economy, and have absolutely no relevance whatsoever to capitalist economies, industries or markets.

  2. Buiter’s paper is a great short but pithy read.

    Thanks.


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