Monday, September 23, 2013

On The Ideological Function Of Certain Ideas Of Friedman And Barro

A Simple Keynes-Like Model
1.0 Introduction

I want to comment on an ideology that would lead to an acceptance of:

  • Milton Friedman's Permanent Income Hypothesis (PIH)
  • Robert Barro's so-called theory of Ricardian Equivalence

My claim is that Friedman and Barro were each responding, in their own way, to the (policy implications suggested by) Keynes' General Theory. So first, I outline, very superficially, some ideas related to the General Theory. I then briefly describe how Friedman and Barro each tried to downplay these ideas, before finally concluding.

I have a number of inspirations for this post, including Robert Waldmann's assertion that the denial of the PIH is consistent with the data; Brad DeLong noting Simon Wren-Lewis and Chris Dillow commenting on the incompetence of, say, Robert Lucas; and Josh Mason pointing out the nonsense that is taught in graduate macroenonomics about the government budget constraint and interest rates.

2.0 Governments Can End Depressions

The figure above illustrates some basic elements of Keynes' theory. This specification of a discrete-time, dynamic system includes an accounting identity for a closed economy, namely, that national income in any time period is the sum of consumption spending, investment, and government spending. And it includes a behavioral relation, namely, a dynamic formulation of a consumption function. In this system, consumption is the sum of autonomous consumption and a term proportional to national income in the previous period. One should assume that the parameter b lies between zero and one.

A policy consequence follows: government can lift the economy out of a depression by spending more. Government spending increases national income immediately. Through the consumption function, it has a positive feedback on next period's income, as well.

3.0 The Permanent Income Hypothesis

Suppose you are hostile to this policy conclusion and, like the current Republican party in the USA, dislike your fellow countrymen. How might you suggest a theoretical revision to the system structure to mitigate the influence of current government spending? One possibility is to suggest more terms enter the consumption function. With the proper manipulation, current government spending will have a smaller impact, since current income will have a smaller impact on consumption.

So, suppose the consumption function does not contain a term multiplying b by income lagged one period. Instead, assume b multiplies an unobserved and (directly) unobservable state variable which, in turn, is an aggregate of current income lagged multiple periods (Yt - 1, Yt - 2, ..., Yt - n). Call this state variable "permanent income", and assume the aggregation is a matter of forming expectations about this variable based on a number of past values of income.

This accomplishes the goal. Current government spending can directly affect current income. But to have the same size impact as before on future income, it would have to be maintained through many lags. The policy impact of increased government spending is attenuated in this model, as compared to the dynamic system illustrated in the figure.

4.0 "Ricardian" Equivalence

One can go further with unobserved state variables. Suppose that households consume based less on recent income, but, once again, on expected values of future income. And suppose that consumers operate under the mainstream economist's mistaken theory of a government budget constraint. So consumers expect increased income today, if it results from increased government spending, to be accompanied by some combination of future decreased government spending and increased taxes. So the same current upward shock to the system causes an expectation of a future downward shock.

This is the theory of Ricardian equivalence. And, like the PIH, it suggests that Keynesian effects are not as dependable as otherwise would be the case.

5.0 Conclusion

The above story portrays economics as driven by results favorable to the biases and perceived self-interests of the extremely affluent. One would hope that academic economics is not entirely like this.

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