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The State of "Modern" "Macro"

Via Lars Syll. Bob Solow:

Dumb and dumber in modern macroeconomics: [When modern macroeconomists] speak of macroeconomics as being firmly grounded in economic theory, we know what they mean … They mean a macroeconomics that is deduced from a model in which a single immortal consumer-worker-owner maximizes a perfectly conventional time-additive utility function over an infinite horizon, under perfect foresight or rational expectations, and in an institutional and technological environment that favors universal price-taking behavior …

No one would be driven to accept this story because of its obvious “rightness”. After all, a modern economy is populated by consumers, workers, pensioners, owners, managers, investors, entrepreneurs, bankers, and others, with different and sometimes conflicting desires, information, expectations, capacities, beliefs, and rules of behavior … To ignore all this in principle does not seem to qualify as mere abstraction – that is setting aside inessential details. It seems more like the arbitrary suppression of clues merely because they are inconvenient for cherished preconceptions …

Friends have reminded me that much effort of ‘modern macro’ goes into the incorporation of important deviations from the Panglossian assumptions … [But] a story loses legitimacy and credibility when it is spliced to a simple, extreme, and on the face of it, irrelevant special case. This is the core of my objection: adding some realistic frictions does not make it any more plausible than an observed economy is acting out the desires of a single, consistent, forward-looking intelligence …

It seems to me, therefore, that the claim that ‘modern macro’ somehow has the special virtue of following the principles of economic theory is tendentious and misleading … The other possible defense of modern macro is that, however special it may seem, it is justified empirically. This strikes me as a delusion …

So I am left with a puzzle, or even a challenge. What accounts for the ability of ‘modern macro’ to win hearts and minds among bright and enterprising academic economists? … There has always been a purist streak in economics that wants everything to follow neatly from greed, rationality, and equilibrium, with no ifs, ands, or buts … The theory is neat, learnable, not terribly difficult, but just technical enough to feel like ‘science’. Moreover it is practically guaranteed to give laissez-faire-type advice, which happens to fit nicely with the general turn to the political right that began in the 1970s and may or may not be coming to an end.

And:

So how did macroeconomics arrive at its current state? The original impulse to look for better or more explicit micro foundations was probably reasonable. What emerged was not a good idea. The preferred model has a single representative consumer optimizing over infinite time with perfect foresight or rational expectations, in an environment that realizes the resulting plans more or less flawlessly through perfectly competitive forward-looking markets for goods and labor, and perfectly flexible prices and wages.

How could anyone expect a sensible short-to-medium-run macroeconomics to come out of that set-up? My impression is that this approach (which seems now to be the mainstream, and certainly dominates the journals, if not the workaday world of macroeconomics) has had no empirical success; but that is not the point here. I start from the presumption that we want macroeconomics to account for the occasional aggregative pathologies that beset modern capitalist economies, like recessions, intervals of stagnation, inflation, “stagflation,” not to mention negative pathologies like unusually good times. A model that rules out pathologies by definition is unlikely to help. It is always possible to claim that those “pathologies” are delusions, and the economy is merely adjusting optimally to some exogenous shock. But why should reasonable people accept this? …

What is needed for a better macroeconomics? [S]ome of the gross implausibilities … need to be eliminated. The clearest candidate is the representative agent. Heterogeneity is the essence of a modern economy. In real life we worry about the relations between managers and shareowners, between banks and their borrowers, between workers and employers, between venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, you name it. We worry about those interfaces because they can and do go wrong, with likely macroeconomic consequences. We know for a fact that heterogeneous agents have different and sometimes conflicting goals, different information, different capacities to process it, different expectations, different beliefs about how the economy works. Representative-agent models exclude all this landscape, though it needs to be abstracted and included in macro-models.

I also doubt that universal rational expectations provide a useful framework for macroeconomics …

Now here is a peculiar thing. When I was in advanced middle age, I suddenly woke up to the fact that my colleagues in macroeconomics, the ones I most admired, thought that the fundamental problem of macro theory was to understand how nominal events could have real consequences. This is just a way of stating some puzzle or puzzles about the sources for sticky wages and prices. This struck me as peculiar in two ways.

First of all, when I was even younger, nobody thought this was a puzzle. You only had to look around you to stumble on a hundred different reasons why various prices and factor prices should be much less than perfectly flexible. I once wrote, archly I admit, that the world has its reasons for not being Walrasian. Of course I soon realized that what macroeconomists wanted was a formal account of price stickiness that would fit comfortably into rational, optimizing models. OK, that is a harmless enough activity, especially if it is not taken too seriously. But price and wage stickiness themselves are not a major intellectual puzzle unless you insist on making them one.

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