Has macroeconomics — really — progressed?

25 August, 2015 at 09:32 | Posted in Economics | 3 Comments

A typical DSGE model has a key property that from my work seems wrong. A good example is the model in Galí and Gertler (2007). In this model a positive price shock—a ‘‘cost push” shock — is explosive unless the Fed raises the nominal interest rate more than the increase in the inflation rate. get-off-your-assumptionsIn other words, positive price shocks with the nominal interest rate held constant are expansionary (because the real interest rate falls). In my work, however, they are contractionary. If there is a positive price shock like an oil price increase, nominal wages lag output prices, and so the real wage initially falls. This has a negative effect on consumption. In addition, household real wealth falls because nominal asset prices don’t initially rise as much as the price level. This has a negative effect on consumption through a wealth effect. There is little if any offset from lower real interest rates because households appear to respond more to nominal rates than to real rates. Positive price shocks are thus contractionary even if the Fed keeps the nominal interest rate unchanged. This property is important for a monetary authority in deciding how to respond to a positive price shock. If the authority used the Galí and Gertler (2007) model, it would likely raise the nominal interest rate too much thinking that the price shock is otherwise expansionary. Typical DSGE models are thus likely to be misleading for guiding monetary policy if this key property of the models is wrong.

Ray C. Fair

Krugman is right — public debt is good!

22 August, 2015 at 11:13 | Posted in Economics | 9 Comments

dec3bb27f72875e4fb4d4b62daebb2fd161b36392c1a0626f00cfd2ece207d84The 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.

Paul Krugman


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.

How evidence is treated in macroeconomics

21 August, 2015 at 12:14 | Posted in Economics | 10 Comments

“New Keynesian” macroeconomist Simon Wren-Lewis has a post up on his blog, discussing how evidence is treated in modern macroeconomics (emphasis added):

quote-Oscar-Wilde-consistency-is-the-last-refuge-of-the-58It is hard to get academic macroeconomists trained since the 1980s to address this question, because they have been taught that these models and techniques are fatally flawed because of the Lucas critique and identification problems. But DSGE models as a guide for policy are also fatally flawed because they are too simple. The unique property that DSGE models have is internal consistency. Take a DSGE model, and alter a few equations so that they fit the data much better, and you have what could be called a structural econometric model. It is internally inconsistent, but because it fits the data better it may be a better guide for policy.

Being able to model a credible world, 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 (in terms of resemblance, relevance, etc.). At the very least, the minimalist demand on models in terms of credibility has to give away to a stronger epistemic demand of appropriate similarity and plausibility. One could of course also ask for a sensitivity or robustness analysis, but the credible world, even after having tested it for sensitivity and robustness, can still be a far way from reality – and unfortunately often in ways we know are important. Robustness of claims in a model does not per se give a warrant for exporting the claims to real world target systems.

Questions of external validity are important more specifically also when it comes to microfounded DSGE macromodels. It can never be enough that these models somehow are regarded as internally consistent. One always also has to pose questions of consistency with the data. Internal consistency without external validity is worth nothing.

Yours truly and people like Tony Lawson have for many years been urging economists to pay attention to the ontological foundations of their assumptions and models. Sad to say, economists have not paid much attention — and so modern economics has become increasingly irrelevant to the understanding of the real world.

an-unconvenient-truthWithin mainstream economics internal validity is still everything and external validity nothing. Why anyone should be interested in that kind of theories and models is beyond imagination. As long as mainstream economists do not come up with any export-licenses for their theories and models to the real world in which we live, they really should not be surprised if people say that this is not science, but autism!

Since fully-fledged experiments on a societal scale as a rule are prohibitively expensive, ethically indefensible or unmanageable, economic theorists have to substitute experimenting with something else. To understand and explain relations between different entities in the real economy the predominant strategy is to build models and make things happen in these “analogue-economy models” rather than engineering things happening in real economies.

Formalistic deductive “Glasperlenspiel” can be very impressive and seductive. But in the realm of science it ought to be considered of little or no value to simply make claims about the model and lose sight of reality.

Neoclassical economics has since long given up on the real world and contents itself with proving things about thought up worlds. Empirical evidence only plays a minor role in economic theory, where models largely function as a substitute for empirical evidence. Hopefully humbled by the manifest failure of its theoretical pretences, the one-sided, almost religious, insistence on axiomatic-deductivist modeling as the only scientific activity worthy of pursuing in economics will give way to methodological pluralism based on ontological considerations rather than formalistic tractability.

To have valid evidence is not enough. What economics needs is sound evidence. Why? Simply because the premises of a valid argument do not have to be true, but a sound argument, on the other hand, is not only valid, but builds on premises that are true. Aiming only for validity, without soundness, is setting the economics aspirations level too low for developing a realist and relevant science.

Lucas’ caricature of economic science

20 August, 2015 at 19:39 | Posted in Economics | 4 Comments

uN7GNNaAs Lucas himself wrote in an autobiographical sketch for Lives of the Laureates, he was bewitched by the beauty and power of Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis when he read it the summer before starting his training as a graduate student at Chicago in 1960. Although it did not have the transformative effect on me that it had on Lucas, I greatly admire the Foundations, but regardless of whether Samuelson himself meant to suggest such an idea (which I doubt), it is absurd to draw this conclusion from it:

“I loved the Foundations. Like so many others in my cohort, I internalized its view that if I couldn’t formulate a problem in economic theory mathematically, I didn’t know what I was doing. I came to the position that mathematical analysis is not one of many ways of doing economic theory: It is the only way. Economic theory is mathematical analysis. Everything else is just pictures and talk.”

Oh, come on. Would anyone ever think that unless you can formulate the problem of whether the earth revolves around the sun or the sun around the earth mathematically, you don’t know what you are doing? …

Lucas … internalized the caricature he extracted from Samuelson’s Foundations: that mathematical analysis is the only legitimate way of doing economic theory, and that, in particular, the essence of macroeconomics consists in a combination of axiomatic formalism and philosophical reductionism (microfoundationalism). For Lucas, the only scientifically legitimate macroeconomic models are those that can be deduced from the axiomatized Arrow-Debreu-McKenzie general equilibrium model, with solutions that can be computed and simulated in such a way that the simulations can be matched up against the available macroeconomics time series on output, investment and consumption.

This was both bad methodology and bad science, restricting the formulation of economic problems to those for which mathematical techniques are available to be deployed in finding solutions. On the one hand, the rational-expectations assumption made finding solutions to certain intertemporal models tractable; on the other, the assumption was justified as being required by the rationality assumptions of neoclassical price theory.

David Glasner

Lucas hope of being able to mathematically model the economy as “a FORTRAN program” and “gain some confidence that the component parts of the program are in some sense reliable prior to running it” seems – from an ontological point of view – totally misdirected. The failure in the attempt to anchor the analysis in pure mathematics shows that if you neglect ontological considerations pertaining to the target system, ultimately reality returns with a vengeance when at last questions of bridging and exportation of mathematical model exercises are laid on the table. No matter how precise and rigorous the analysis is, and no matter how hard one tries to cast the argument in “modern mathematical form” they do not push science forwards one millimeter if they do not stand the acid test of relevance to the target. No matter how rigorous the inferences delivered inside these models are, they do not per se say anything about their external validity.

Deirdre McCloskey’s shallow and misleading rhetoric

20 August, 2015 at 17:07 | Posted in Economics | 7 Comments

This is not new to most of you of course. You are already steeped in McCloskey’s Rhetoric. Or you ought to be. After all economists are simply telling stories about the economy. Sometimes we are taken in. Sometimes we are not.

spin-meme-generator-dont-say-capitalism-replace-it-with-either-economic-freedom-or-free-market-3ba401Unfortunately McCloskey herself gets a little too caught up in her stories. As in her explanation as to how she can be both a feminist and a free market economist:

“The market is the great liberator of women; it has not been the state, which is after all an instrument of patriarchy … The market is the way out of enslavement from your dad, your husband, or your sons. … The enrichment that has come through allowing markets to operate has been a tremendous part of the learned freedom of the modern women.” — Quoted in “The Changing Face of Economics – Conversations With Cutting Edge Economists” by Colander, Holt, and Rosser

Notice the binary nature of the world in this story. There are only the market (yea!) and the state (boo!). There are no other institutions. Whole swathes of society vanish or are flattened into insignificance. The state is viewed as a villain that the market heroically battles against to advance us all.

It is a ripping tale.

It is shallow and utterly misleading.

Peter Radford

Top universities — preserves of bad economics

19 August, 2015 at 09:56 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

There are certainly some things that the top institutions offer which lower-ranked once simply can’t: great buildings and history for starters. To walk around Cambridge, to see its grand architecture, and to feel drenched in its history, is an amazing experience …

aaBut the quality of the education you get at University depends very much on the individual people you are taught by, and here University rankings are far from a perfect guide. Extremely gifted teachers and researchers can be at lower ranked Universities, for a multitude of reasons from personal preferences to sheer lock-in: a capable person can start in a lower-ranked institution, and find that the “Old Boys Network” locks them out of the higher ranked ones.

In my own field of economics, there is also a paradox at play: in many ways the top universities have become preserves of bad economics, both in content and in teaching quality, while the best education in economics often comes from the lower ranked Universities.

In fact, there’s a case to be made that the better the University is ranked, the worse the education in economics will be. And before you think I’m just flogging my own wares here, consider what the American Economics Association had to say about the way that economics education appeared to be headed in the USA back in 1991:

“The Commission’s fear is that graduate programs may be turning out a generation with too many idiots savants, skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues.” (“Report of the Commission on Graduate Education in Economics”, American Economic Association 1991)

The graduates of 1991 have become the University lecturers of today, and thanks to them, the trend the report identified at the graduate level has trickled down to undergraduate education at the so-called leading Universities.

Steve Keen/Forbes

Things economists could learn from kids

18 August, 2015 at 19:26 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment


Kids, somehow, seem to be more in touch with real science than can-opener-assuming economists …

A physicist, a chemist, and an economist are stranded on a desert island. One can only imagine what sort of play date went awry to land them there. Anyway, they’re hungry. Like, desert island hungry. And then a can of soup washes ashore. Progresso Reduced Sodium Chicken Noodle, let’s say. Which is perfect, because the physicist can’t have much salt, and the chemist doesn’t eat red meat.

Campbell's_Soup_with_Can_OpenerBut, famished as they are, our three professionals have no way to open the can. So they put their brains to the problem. The physicist says “We could drop it from the top of that tree over there until it breaks open.” And the chemist says “We could build a fire and sit the can in the flames until it bursts open.”

Those two squabble a bit, until the economist says “No, no, no. Come on, guys, you’d lose most of the soup. Let’s just assume a can opener.”

Robert Solow kicking Lucas and Sargent in the pants

16 August, 2015 at 20:34 | Posted in Economics | 5 Comments

McNees documented the radical break between the 1960s and 1970s. The question is: what are the possible responses that economists and economics can make to those events?

robert_solow4One possible response is that of Professors Lucas and Sargent. They describe what happened in the 1970s in a very strong way with a polemical vocabulary reminiscent of Spiro Agnew. Let me quote some phrases that I culled from thepaper: “wildly incorrect,” “fundamentally flawed,” “wreckage,” “failure,” “fatal,” “of no value,” “dire implications,” “failure on a grand scale,” “spectac- ular recent failure,” “no hope” … I think that Professors Lucas and Sargent really seem to be serious in what they say, and in turn they have a proposal for constructive research that I find hard to talk about sympathetically. They call it equilibrium business cycle theory, and they say very firmly that it is based on two terribly important postulates — optimizing behavior and perpetual market clearing. When you read closely, they seem to regard the postulate of optimizing behavior as self-evident and the postulate of market-clearing behavior as essentially meaningless. I think they are too optimistic, since the one that they think is self-evident I regard as meaningless and the one that they think is meaningless, I regard as false. The assumption that everyone optimizes implies only weak and uninteresting consistency conditions on their behavior. Anything useful has to come from knowing what they optimize, and what constraints they perceive. Lucas and Sargent’s casual assumptions have no special claim to attention …

It is plain as the nose on my face that the labor market and many markets for produced goods do not clear in any meaningful sense. Professors Lucas and Sargent say after all there is no evidence that labor markets do not clear, just the unemployment survey. That seems to me to be evidence. Suppose an unemployed worker says to you “Yes, I would be glad to take a job like the one I have already proved I can do because I had it six months ago or three or four months ago. And I will be glad to work at exactly the same wage that is being paid to those exactly like myself who used to be working at that job and happen to be lucky enough still to be working at it.” Then I’m inclined to label that a case of excess supply of labor and I’m not inclined to make up an elaborate story of search or misinformation or anything of the sort. By the way I find the misinformation story another gross implausibility. I would like to see direct evidence that the unemployed are more misinformed than the employed, as I presume would have to be the case if everybody is on his or her supply curve of employment. Similarly, if the Chrysler Motor Corporation tells me that it would be happy to make and sell 1000 more automobiles this week at the going price if only it could find buyers for them, I am inclined to believe they are telling me that price exceeds marginal cost, or even that marginal revenue exceeds marginal cost, and regard that as a case of excess supply of automobiles. Now you could ask, why do not prices and wages erode and crumble under those circumstances? Why doesn’t the unemployed worker who told me “Yes, I would like to work, at the going wage, at the old job that my brother-in-law or my brother-in-law’s brother-in-law is still holding”, why doesn’t that person offer to work at that job for less? Indeed why doesn’t the employer try to encourage wage reduction? That doesn’t happen either. Why does the Chrysler Corporation not cut the price? Those are questions that I think an adult person might spend a lifetime studying. They are important and serious questions, but the notion that the excess supply is not there strikes me as utterly implausible.

Robert Solow

No unnecessary beating around the bush here.

The always eminently quotable Solow says it all.

The purported strength of New Classical macroeconomics is that it has firm anchorage in preference-based microeconomics, and especially the decisions taken by inter-temporal utility maximizing “forward-loooking” individuals.

To some of us, however, this has come at too high a price. The almost quasi-religious insistence that macroeconomics has to have microfoundations – without ever presenting neither ontological nor epistemological justifications for this claim – has put a blind eye to the weakness of the whole enterprise of trying to depict a complex economy based on an all-embracing representative actor equipped with superhuman knowledge, forecasting abilities and forward-looking rational expectations. It is as if – after having swallowed the sour grapes of the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu-theorem – these economists want to resurrect the omniscient walrasian auctioneer in the form of all-knowing representative actors equipped with rational expectations and assumed to somehow know the true structure of our model of the world.

That anyone should take that kind of stuff seriously is totally and unbelievably ridiculous. Or as Solow has it:

4703325Suppose someone sits down where you are sitting right now and announces to me that he is Napoleon Bonaparte. The last thing I want to do with him is to get involved in a technical discussion of cavalry tactics at the battle of Austerlitz. If I do that, I’m getting tacitly drawn into the game that he is Napoleon. Now, Bob Lucas and Tom Sargent like nothing better than to get drawn into technical discussions, because then you have tacitly gone along with their fundamental assumptions; your attention is attracted away from the basic weakness of the whole story. Since I find that fundamental framework ludicrous, I respond by treating it as ludicrous – that is, by laughing at it – so as not to fall into the trap of taking it seriously and passing on to matters of technique.

Robert Solow

General equilibrium theory — a gross misallocation of intellectual resources and time

15 August, 2015 at 10:30 | Posted in Economics | 2 Comments

General equilibrium is fundamental to economics on a more normative level as well. A story about Adam Smith, the invisible hand, and the merits of markets pervades introductory textbooks, classroom teaching, and contemporary political discourse.getbourse The intellectual foundation of this story rests on general equilibrium, not on the latest mathematical excursions. If the foundation of everyone’s favourite economics story is now known to be unsound — and according to some, uninteresting as well — then the profession owes the world a bit of an explanation.

Frank Ackerman

Almost a century and a half after Léon Walras founded general equilibrium theory, economists still have not been able to show that markets lead economies to equilibria.

We do know that — under very restrictive assumptions — equilibria do exist, are unique and are Pareto-efficient.

But after reading Frank Ackerman’s article — or Franklin M. Fisher’s The stability of general equilibrium – what do we know and why is it important? — one has to ask oneself — what good does that do?

As long as we cannot show that there are convincing reasons to suppose there are forces which lead economies to equilibria — the value of general equilibrium theory is nil. As long as we cannot really demonstrate that there are forces operating — under reasonable, relevant and at least mildly realistic conditions — at moving markets to equilibria, there cannot really be any sustainable reason for anyone to pay any interest or attention to this theory.

A stability that can only be proved by assuming Santa Claus conditions is of no avail. Most people do not believe in Santa Claus anymore. And for good reasons. Santa Claus is for kids, and general equilibrium economists ought to grow up, leaving their Santa Claus economics in the dustbin of history.

Continuing to model a world full of agents behaving as economists — “often wrong, but never uncertain” — and still not being able to show that the system under reasonable assumptions converges to equilibrium (or simply assume the problem away), is a gross misallocation of intellectual resources and time. As Ackerman writes:

The guaranteed optimality of market outcomes and laissez-faire policies died with general equilibrium. If economic stability rests on exogenous social and political forces, then it is surely appropriate to debate the desirable extent of intervention in the market — in part, in order to rescue the market fromits own instability.

Thomas Schelling for dummies

11 August, 2015 at 19:45 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

The concept of “critical mass” was originally created by Thomas Schelling to explain a variety of different “tipping point” actions and behaviours in society.

The concept was elaborated on in Schelling’s masterful Micromotives and Macrobehavior (1978).

Here’s what it’s (almost) all about …

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