Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Plague On Both Your Houses

In a Bloomberg News piece, Noah Smith makes some false claims. I think his mistakes - what Eatwell and Milgate call an imperfectionist view - are widely shared among many macroeconomists. My belief that these mistakes are widely shared is not overthrown, I think, by the confusions put forth in these later posts by Stephen Williamson and Noah Smith, respectively.

First, we have the mistaken belief that in a perfect world, capitalist economies would move quickly towards equilibrium. Smith starts his column with an anecdote:

"One time, at a dinner, I asked a famous macroeconomist: 'So, what really causes recessions?'

His reply came immediately: 'Unexplained shocks to investment.'"

I take this to be an expression of the freshwater view, as embodied in models of Real Business Cycles. Cycles are to be understood as equilibrium paths responding to exogeneous stochastic shocks. Risk exists, but uncertainty does not. Recessions and depressions occur when workers voluntarily decide to take long vacations.

Second, we have mistaken understandings of price theory and how equilibrium is established:

"The market adjusts by the price mechanism. If the cost of something goes up, the price goes up to match. If demand falls, the price drops until the market clears."

I take this to be a claim that equilibrium prices are indices of relative scarcity, a belief shown to be without logical foundation about half a century ago. Ever since Robert Lucas put forth his critique in the 1970s, mainstream macroeconomists have claimed to be developing models with rigorous microfoundations. And those foundations are supposed to be provided by General Equilibrium Theory, in which agents optimize under constraints.

But many macroeconomists seem to be just ignorant of price theory, as experts in GET, such as Frank Hahn explained long ago. In the most rigorous neoclassical theory, with many commodities and many agents, the assumptions do not lead to the conclusion that prices behave that way. Nor do the theorists have a good story about how equilibrium is established. The mathematics used in mainstream macroeconomists does not allow one to find clear statements of assumptions. At least, I am unable to understand what assumptions mainstream economists think they are making on tastes, technology, and endowments in multicommodity models to justify their macroeconomic modeling. I would rather that economists turn to non-equilibrium modeling, a position that I think Robert Lucas still finds incoherent.

Third, suppose you hold that observed fluctuations in employment and output in capitalist economies can hardly be an equilibrium response. If you held the mistaken ideas about price theory that Noah Smith does, you would think that the empirical behavior of economies could only be explained by introducing some imperfection, some failure of competition, some information asymmetry, or some stickiness or slow adjustment into your theory. And given your empirical beliefs, you would think the development of theory in such a direction is a triumph of science:

"But despite these scattered denunciations and grumbles, sticky prices are enjoying a hard-fought place in the sun. The moral of the story is that if you just keep pounding away with theory and evidence, even the toughest orthodoxy in a mean, confrontational field like macroeconomics will eventually have to give you some respect."

But it is not the case that markets, including the labor market, would rapidly clear if only imperfections did not exist in a market economy. For economists to have reached this as a consensus position is a failure of their profession, not an achievement. Business cycles neither need to be explained as an equilibrium phenomenon, nor need sticky prices be invoked to explain the failure of markets to clear.

Is the topic of the above post orthogonal to a debate Paul Krugman overviews? I am of two minds on Krugman's post. I cannot be too hostile to a blog post illustrated with a homoclinic bifurcation. Maybe a solid appreciation of nonlinearity in macroeconomics is associated these days with heterodox, but not necessarily non-mainstream economics.

  • John Eatwell and Murray Milgate (2011). The Fall and Rise of Keynesian Economics, Oxford University Press.
  • Richard M. Goodwin (1990). Chaotic Economic Dynamics, Oxford University Press.
  • Murray Milgate (1982). Capital and Employment: A Study of Keynes's Economics, Academic Press.

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