The Latest Macro Dust-Up

There have been several blog posts commenting on Kartik Athreya’s book, Big ideas in Macroeconomics: A nontechnical view and I wanted to make a couple of passing remarks pertaining to the blog posts I’ve read. I haven’t read the book yet, and to be completely honest, I’m not sure I will ever get to it given the huge pile of work I have. I will not discuss the book itself. Instead I’ll focus on some of the noteworthy remarks made by bloggers.

Overall, there seems to be lots of misplaced DSGE hand-wringing going on. I think one of the main reasons that some economists dislike DSGE models is that they place limitations on our ability to engage in hand-waiving theorizing. “Microfoundations” is really just code for saying that we want you to be specific and clear. Researchers who try to brush by important parts of their business cycle theories will have a really tough time if they cannot provide the details that accompany their hand waiving. As soon as a researcher appeals to some arbitrary relationship which comes out of thin air, they will immediately feel pressure to back up that component of their theory. Unlike many macroeconomists, I am willing to let people make use of plausible ad hoc theoretical relationships provided that they come with an acknowledgement that this is unfinished work which needs to be filled in later. In the past, wise old economists could get by making sweeping statements about the nature of business cycles and the correct policy cocktail which he or she thought would save the day without having to spell out what they really meant. Today, macroeconomists are typically not granted this latitude.

In his comment, Noah Smith argues that many macroeconomists are “in love with modern macro methodology.” I think Noah is partially correct. It’s true that there are many economists (not just macro guys) who focus far too much on the tools we use to analyze problems rather than the problems themselves. In the end, tools are only valuable if they are put to good use. My own view is that grad students need to have a solid grasp of fundamental / basic tools so they can get started. But, after learning these basic tools, they should not go out of their way to learn more advanced tools unless they have a specific need to do so. There are other people who feel quite differently and I can appreciate this alternate view even if I don’t ultimately agree with it. On the other hand, I’m not so sure I know what Noah means by “macro methodology.” The techniques used by macroeconomists are for the most part used in every area of economics. Dynamic programming is used in labor and IO as well as macro. Bayesian estimation, maximum likelihood techniques and so on are used by most fields. General equilibrium analysis is again used throughout economics. There are some tools which are used almost solely by macroeconomics (the Blanchard-Kahn decomposition comes to mind) but I don’t think this is what he has in mind. Perhaps it is the conjunction of so many common elements that he associates with DSGE models. For instance, there is a good deal of “boilerplate” which shows up in DSGE models (the representative agent, the production function, the capital accumulation equation, and so on). It might be interesting to hear exactly what he views as techniques which are primarily in the domain of DSGE research which he questions.

John Quiggin takes the opportunity to Eulogize some of the modern research which he feels met its end during the financial crisis. He writes that “(t)he crisis that erupted in 2008 destroyed (the) spurious consensus (in macroeconomics).” There might be some truth to this statement as well though I’m not entirely sure what class of theories he has in mind. I suspect that he thinks that the crisis undercut real business cycle models or perhaps rational expectations models more generally. I don’t think this is the case. The productivity shocks at the heart of standard real business cycle models have not been viewed as plausible sources of business cycles fluctuations for quite a while and rational expectations theories are most likely here to stay. If there is a model that really got taken to the woodshed during the financial crisis it was the New Keynesian model which had, until then, occupied a clearly dominant position in policy discussions and academic research. The “New Old Keynesians” as he calls them aren’t having a much better time. They also don’t have a good framework for understanding the financial crisis (there is no meaningful financial sector in the traditional IS/LM model) and their versions of the supply-side of the models aren’t doing very well at all. Quiggin might be referring to the absence of Keynesian demand channels in many DSGE models. Here he might have more of a case. Getting traditional Keynesian demand models to work the way they ought to is not easy. Again, the mechanics of the DSGE approach might be limiting us. There are lots of background assumptions made in most DSGE models which play important roles in how the models function and which likely prevent Keynesian swings in aggregate demand from occuring (though Roger Farmer’s work is overtly pushing in this direction). The basic Walrasian supply and demand framework is surely one of the key features of DSGE models which limit Keynesian channels. A worker who cannot find employment can simply lower his wage. A firm that cannot sell its goods can simply lower the price if it needs to sell. Of course, sticky prices and sticky wages are the standard refrain but this now ties the model to observations in which recessions should be accompanied by deflation (which really didn’t happen during the great recession). I personally have some faith in the basic Keynesian demand story but we don’t really have a good useable version of it at the moment.

Paul Krugman also weighs in with a short comment. He makes two remarks which are noteworthy. First he says that DSGE models are “basically, the particular form of modeling that is more or less the only thing one can publish in journals these days).” This is simply not true. Second, his closing remark is (to me) somewhat cryptic:

I think, that somebody is going to end up in the dustbin of history. I wonder who?

I confess, I really don’t know who or what he is talking about when he writes this.

More to come I’m sure …

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23 thoughts on “The Latest Macro Dust-Up

  1. “I personally have some faith in the basic Keynesian demand story but we don’t really have a good useable version of it at the moment.”

    I totally agree with this. If I may slightly modify what you said, it is not a matter of faith, the Great Depression and the Great Recession match the Keynesian demand story. So what we have is a theory that matches the facts but it merely exist in a fairly vague form and all its formalizations fail (this is the best blog post I ever read which shows in a concise fashion the failures of Old Keynesian and New Keynesian model).

    How to proceed depends on how much you value external and internal consistency. The public and policy makers should mainly care about the former (let’s take climate change: nobody amongst us layman knows the model methodology or cares about it but we care about whether climate models match the data / can make decent forecasts) whereas the economic theoretician should also care about the latter. My impression is that too many contemporary macroeconomists care only/mainly about the latter.

  2. –“Microfoundations” is really just code for saying that we want you to be specific and clear.–

    Perhaps this was just a dashed off sentence (and would be revised upon deeper reflection), but there are a lot more issues and politics and philosophies of science in the “microfoundations” debate than merely a desire for precision. It’s *almost* offensive to put it the way you did. The world is extraordinarily complex, and one complaint about specificity is that it only exacerbates how deeply one deludes oneself about the assumptions that remain hidden in any model (and the detail that must, by necessity, be abstracted away, no matter how specific you get).

    And surely, you are experienced enough in life to understand that the universe is full of seeming paradoxes (for example, how certain quests can be self-defeating of their very nature…such is not always the case with precision, but it certainly sometimes is).

    [And do you actually dispute the evidence that has been gathered about sticky wages? And are you confusing disinflation and deflation in that sentence? I’m feeling a lot of confirmation bias and refusal to engage the inconvenient facts here, but maybe I’m reading too much into a short blog post. Please don’t tell me that you believe the market for labor is anything close to a simple, frictionless commodity market. There are skills issues, power issues, location issues, long term optimization issues. I just cannot take something like that seriously.]

    • I do not dispute the evidence in favor of price rigidity (the evidence in favor of wage rigidity is somewhat sketchy but I still believe that wage rigidity is a true feature of the world we live in). What I am less sure of is whether price and wage rigidities are important frictions which macroeconomists necessarily need to confront to understand the economy. This is the key point of contention in Keynesian and New Keynesian models today.

      I am perfectly willing to include disinflation as (that is a reduction in the inflation rate) as a telltale sign of distress from a New Keynesian perspective but the facts are that the core rate of inflation has been remarkably stable through out the financial crisis. If all I gave you was the inflation data you would probably guess that basically nothing happened.

      No, I don’t believe the labor market is a frictionless perfect market the way we describe it in Econ101. All of the details you mentioned play important factors in modern employment decisions. That said, the basic undercurrent of labor demand and supply are still at work even if the true model is closer to a complicated matching environment.

    • The world is extraordinarily complex — true. It sounds like you are thinking that it is inevitable that we will have to let some features of the world remain outside our understanding (that we will have to abstract from many of the details that exist in the world). I agree but I think we should be honest about the fact that these details are outside our models.

  3. Chris – You’re right. The conjunction of common “boilerplate” DSGE elements seems to be very beloved of a lot of macro people. This is generally what I meant.

    But the one specific method macro people seem to love more than anyone else is GE itself. I’ve noticed that most other disciplines seem to use Nash equilibrium or partial equilibrium a lot in their theories these days, and micro people usually tell me that there’s not a lot of interest in GE in their discipline anymore. Interestingly, GE might also be slightly losing its death-grip on macro – the wage bargaining in labor search models is usually Nash bargaining or some other type of strategic interaction.

  4. I am going to come in from a more heterodox perspective that you do not even mention, Chris, but that I think is more in line with where Quiggen is at, namely a more Post Keynesian one, granting that there is an array of approaches wearing that label. For starters, I would note that the economists who did the best job of calling ahead of time what happened in 2008-09 without falling into some sort of nonsense about hyperinflation were overwhelmingly of some sort of Post Keynesian orientation, such as Dean Baker (an old Michigan grad, I believe) and Nouriel Roubini, among others. Why is this?

    One element is the Minskyan view, which you simply do not mention, but which does provide an analysis of the financial market that many said looked very good in 2008, but which has since been shoved so far aside that folks like you are back to touting DSGE while simply pretending the Minsky did not exist or is of no relevance. What is the problem here?

    I think the central problem is indeed the rational expectations assumption. You blithely inform us that it is “here to stay,” but why is that? The empirical evidence has been overwhelming and widely known for decades, much of it even published in places like the AER and not just looney bin outlets like JEBO or the JPKE, that ratex is simply not true. Most people do not have rational expectations, and there is no reason whatsoever to believe, as some theories assert, that the few ratex people out there can dominate markets against all the others. Once that peg is removed, a lot of other things fall apart, including, of course, full GE, although I think more limited forms of GE may still be usable, temporary equilibria and so on, and some forms of multiple equilibria a la the stuff Farmer pushes.

    So, once ratex is gone, the usual textbook rat race over fixed vs flex wages and prices becomes a non-issue, with recent stuff by Eggertsson and others, as well as a lot of older work by PKs that has largely been ignored by the mainstream, that in fact flex wages and prices may lead to more instability of real output rather than less. The old New Keynesian fixation on rigidity as the source of fluctuations goes away, although it is certainly correct that downwardly rigid nominal wages can increase amounts of unemployment arising when the economy falls for whatever reason.

    This sort of thing links up with MInskyan approaches, which openly allow for bubbles and price overshoots (which can occur even in some more standard models, as with the Dornbusch model of forex market overshooting, very standard textbooks stuff widely thought to be seen in the real world as well). This may involve some failure of GE or even Nash equilibria, which makes lots of people unhappy, but it certainly looks a lot more like what happened. I understand that attempting stick financial frictions into DSGE models is the fad du jour in garden variety macro, and maybe this will get somewhere, but it seems unlikely that it will capture certain things we have actually seen better than models more clearly based on explicit Minskyan foundations, generally involving some of those dreaded “ad hoc” assumptions.

    Let me close by noting that I am all for being clear about microfoundations assumptions, although I think these can take a lot of forms such as empirically backed behavioral ones for agent-based or other models. The problem is insisting that those microfoundations follow certain assumptions that are simply known to be empirically false. This is why the front rooms at the central banks are so frustrated with those in the back rooms, clutching to their outmoded models that deserve to be in the dustbin of history, even if those in control of “modern macro” refuse to let them go there where they belong.

    Barkley Rosser

    • Hi Barkley,

      Thanks for your comment. You touch on a lot of points in your comment. I doubt I’ll get to all of them in this response.

      The issue of predicting the crisis. I’m not sure why Dean Baker (indeed an earlier Michigan grad) made his predictions. Same for Roubini. I tend to discount the soothsayers. My guess is that these are just the guys who lucked out this time (hasn’t Roubini been predicting disaster for over a decade?).

      On Minsky. To be perfectly honest I don’t know too much about his work. I recently read his book Stabilizing an Unstable Economy and I must confess, it was quite a let-down. To me, the analysis seemed pretty superficial. I’m not sure his thinking has really changed my own assessment of the crisis but as I said, I don’t know very much about his work. Is there a paper or book that you feel would convey his key ideas particularly well?

      On rational expectations. Take a look at my earlier RE post. I would take a fairly strong position on RE. Not only do I think it is the correct way of thinking about economic systems, I think it is fundamentally correct. Most people do have rational expectations. (Yes, I know about the formal tests but I don’t think they are really confronting RE on its own terms.) RE also allows for bubbles and even price overshooting.

      As I said above, I am open to developing business cycle theories with ad hoc assumptions provided that we are prepared to admit that these assumptions are loose ends which we don’t currently have fully thought out.

      • Well, I do think Nouriel has tended to overdo his “Dr. Doom” schtick, with him looking a bit eggy on the face lately having predicted that we would have a “perfect storm” crash in 2013, and, well… Dean was the first, or certainly one of the very earliest, back in 2002 initially I think, to spot that the housing market was getting bubbly. It was in Dec. 2006 that both he and Roubini got more specific and argued that the decline in housing prices and construction was not only going to put the economy into a recession, but that the linkages with the rest of the financial system of the mortgages that were going bad would make it a very bad recession. On that one I criticized them at the time for ignoring the low level of the dollar and that exports would likely rise, which was in fact what happened during 2007, with the rise in exports about offsetting the decline in construction, which is sort of funny since these days Dean regularly lambastes others for ignoring the role of the value of the dollar.

        It must be admitted that neither was using a formal model to make their predictions (and neither was I, although in mid-summer 2008 I warned we were in a Minsky style period of financial distress in in the broader financial markets following a peak that looked like it would end up with a full crash soon), but they were pretty close in calling it, and Dean at least had not been declaring imminent recession before then, even though he had been warning that the housing bubble would eventually cause trouble. However, if you want to dismiss them as soothsayers because their lack of use of formal models, I understand, although they were both drawing on Minskyan insights in their soothsaying (and there were tell-tale signs of being in a Ponzi finance stage, which were certainly widespread).

        Regarding Minsky, Krugman made a similar complaint, and I think that it is due to the relative simplicity of his formal models, which are barely there. I happen to prefer his 1972 Federal Reserve paper that initially laid out several major portions of his ideas. Part of why it is hard to formalize is that it involves in effect endogenous psychological changes that are crucial to how it works, with the matter of an equilibrium destabilizing itself as expectations change and investors in effect become complacent a central matter. Clearly this is not easy to put into any sort of ratex framework, much less even a looser formal model. Among the few efforts have been in what are probably the best papers by the difficult and overhyped by his fan club, Steve Keen, both of them in het journals, one in the JPKE in 1995 and one in JEBO that only finally came out early last year. I confess to having played a role in the publication of both of those papers, thereby labeling myself as being in the “looney bin,” :-).

        On the matter of ratex, well we clearly disagree, but I am not going to debate now the matter of whether the formal tests you admit exist really test the hypothesis “on its own terms” or not now. I do recognize that rational bubbles can exist, indeed have published on this matter quite a bit (not in leading journals), although clearly there are strong conditions that must hold for them to do so, and I personally think that most we actually see involve elements of irrationality along Minsky-Shiller lines, and I think the available empirical evidence supports this, although there have been a few bubbles that have happened that may fit the conditions.

        I also grant that it is useful to think about what models say that assume ratex, as well as taking the Lucas Critique seriously. It is when one jumps to not only assuming ratex but also assuming that there is a unique ratex equilibrium that solves the problem that I think things are becoming problematic. Given that I accept that the formal tests that find ratex not holding to be serious, my bottom line is that Lucas’s answer to his own critique is itself subject to his own critique.

        Again, and to conclude, I think we agree that all modelers should make their assumptions clear, whatever they are..

      • “It must be admitted that neither was using a formal model to make their predictions”

        If formal models fail empirically the entire discipline has to become a little bit more pre-Samuelsonian. Take the conflict between Old Keynesians with their “consume everything in one period” IS-LM and the New Classicals with their perfect capital markets and total consumption smoothing. Neither FORMAL theiry mataches consumption data well whereas Friedman’s INFORMAL hypothesis on consumption does empirically pretty well.

        Doesn’t mean that the economic theoretician should stop working on macro models with liquidity constraints, credit rationing, habit persistence or whatever else … but due to the plethora of market failures and behavioural issues that can cause this consumption behaviour we can roll in the meantime on the more empirical side of macro with not-so-formal-and-mathematically-beautifuly ad-hoc stuff.

    • Barkley: You mention Post-Keynesian types who issued early warnings of the subsequent financial crisis. How do you feel Rajan fits into all that? He certainly is not a member of the Post-Keynesian tribe, and it’s not accurate to claim that, e.g., Baker & Roubini did a better job calling attention to upcoming nastiness.

      • There is a sample of folks who predicted the crisis. Many of them are Keynesians who do not work with DSGE or any other formal model but unlike their academic counterparts take a look at what is going on in the real world from time to time.
        The totally nontechnical 10 page paper of Minsky was one of the best papers to describe what has happened in the late noughties.

        About Rajan, he might have realized that there is excessive risk-taking in the financial sector but unlike Baker or Roubini he does not have a clue about how to get out of the mess. Only a Chicago school graduate could interpret a balance sheet recession as a supply side problem.

  5. “Please don’t tell me that you believe the market for labor is anything close to a simple, frictionless commodity market. There are skills issues, power issues, location issues, long term optimization issues. I just cannot take something like that seriously.]”

    You needn’t –if you’re trying to understand facts in labor markets– and I certainly think this is the mainstream position…to the point where I thought it was warranted to say in the book that:

    “First, labor in the real world is nearly always allocated through a messy process of “search and matching,” in which market power can sometimes exist in the sense that bargaining and price-setting behavior may be relevant. The importance of the labor market to household well-being is undeniable, making this market’s deviation from the Walrasian benchmark potentially very important to understand. More generally, the causes and consequences of “non-Walrasian” labor markets now occupy much of the attention of macroeconomists, as we’ll see….”

    And:

    “One critical market that I will place into the IOU category is that of labor. While it is true that some do have jobs that pay essentially in a spot transaction (such as the teenager who may mow neighborhood lawns in the summer, or a local babysitter, or a seasonal farm laborer), most other forms of trade in labor are longer-term and very much involve promises by both workers and employers. Employment is not usefully regarded for most of us as a spot market transaction. Rather, it is generally a relationship expected by all parties to last for at least some time (and often, an open-ended amount of time). It is one that prescribes, implicitly or explicitly, actions for employer and employee alike at various times under various contingencies. Put this way, it becomes clearer that all relationships may be viewed as the trade in (sometimes elaborate) bundles of IOUs.”

    …And there’s then a bunch of discussion of what can go wrong in markets for such promises (“IOUs”)

    Best

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  7. “The “New Old Keynesians” as he calls them aren’t having a much better time. They also don’t have a good framework for understanding the financial crisis (there is no meaningful financial sector in the traditional IS/LM model) and their versions of the supply-side of the models aren’t doing very well at all.”

    This caught my attention. I recently used a modified IS/LM framework to identify the impact of financial markets on aggregate consumption growth. The data set goes back 55 years and shows a pretty strong relationship. Data set and methodology here http://tinyurl.com/qzp4h3f

    The underlying principle is that banks can expand money supply to meet excess loan demand, and the Fed can provide reserves to absorb excess supply of savings. Accordingly, the financial system can enable infinite number of states on the IS/LM curves, none of which requires an equilibrium between borrowing and savings. I will appreciate any feedback to this line of thought.

    Also, I believe that money and the distorting influence of the financial system are at the core of the business cycle. This was definitely the case during the gold standard. Back then the fixed amount of reserves capped monetary expansions during the upswing; however, monetary contraction and deflation ran unabated on the downswing. Today, money continues to be at the heart of the business cycle; however, the transmission mechanisms have changed. Due to a limited tools set (namely inability to control the demand for money), asset booms and busts have been the side effect of active Fed policy (more thoughts on what causes the business cycle here tinyurl.com/lnzdcch)

  8. I thought I might pass on a few interesting observations made by Mike Woodford in a paper from 2012, responding to a criticism of RE based DSGE made by John Kay. What he says seems to make quite a bit of sense to me, especially about the need to actually begin learning about and modelling the realistic process by which people form and change their expectations:

    “There is… an important respect in which I do believe that much model-based economic
    analysis imposes a requirement of internal consistency that is unduly strong, and that may result in unnecessary fragility of the conclusions reached; and I suspect that this has a fair amount to do with the unease that Kay expresses about modern economic analysis. It has been standard for at least the past three decades to use models in which not only does the model give a complete description of a hypothetical world, and not only is this description one in which outcomes follow from rational behavior on the part of the decision-makers in the model, but the decision-makers in the model are assumed to understand the world in exactly the way it is represented in the model.

    This postulate of “rational expectations,” as it is commonly though rather misleadingly known, is the crucial theoretical assumption behind such doctrines as “efficient markets” in asset pricing theory and “Ricardian equivalence” in macroeconomics. It is often presented as if it were a simple consequence of an aspiration to internal consistency in one’s model and/or explanation of people’s choices in terms of individual rationality, but in fact it is not a necessary implication of these methodological commitments. It does not follow from the fact that one believes in the validity of one’s own model and that one believes that people can be assumed to make rational choices that they must be assumed to make the choices that would be seen to be correct by someone who (like the economist) believes in the validity of the predictions of that model. Still less would it follow, if the economist herself accepts the
    necessity of entertaining the possibility of a variety of possible models, that the only models that she should consider are ones in each of which everyone in the economy is assumed to understand the correctness of that particular model, rather than entertaining beliefs that might (for example) be consistent with one of the other models in the set that she herself regards as possibly correct.”

    “…the mainstream alternative developed in response to [the Lucas] critique — according to which aggregate consumer expenditure is modeled as the solution to the Euler equation (a condition for intertemporal optimality) of a representative household, under the hypothesis of rational expectations, has difficulty matching the statistical properties of aggregate data too closely. In order to avoid making strongly counter-factual predictions, current-vintage empirical DSGE models commonly assume preferences for the representative household that incorporate a high degree of “habit persistence,” so that even when solved under the assumption of intertemporal optimization under rational expectations, consumer spending will not jump sharply in response to events that (at least according to the model) should
    predictably change the future path of household income. But the postulate of strong habit persistence has not found much support from studies of the behavior of individual households. An alternative explanation for the observation of persistent departures from the predictions of the rational expectations Euler-equation model under more standard preferences would be the existence of persistent departures of actual household expectations from those implied by the rational-expectations solution of the economists’ model.”

    “The macroeconomics of the future, I believe, will… have to go beyond conventional late-twentieth-century methodology as well, by making the formation and revision of expectations an object of analysis in its own right… A prudent use of such an approach for economic policy analysis would surely need to consider a variety of possible assumptions about the forecasting approaches used by economic agents, quite apart from the consideration that would be given to uncertainty about the correct specification of the economic environment.

    This absence of a single clear prediction about how people should forecast is often considered to be a reason not to entertain such hypotheses, and instead to prefer the hypothesis of rational expectations, which aims to provide a unique prediction about expectations in a given economic environment. But a more sensible approach may be to accept that one should only expect one’s model of the economy to deliver a range of plausible outcomes, rather than a unique prediction…

    Allowance for a set of possible outcomes under a given policy would lead to an approach to
    policy design that would focus on the robustness of policy to possible variations in the way that the consequences of the policy are understood by people in the economy, rather than focusing solely on the optimality of the policy if events unfold precisely as planned. It should lead, for example, to a concern to design policies that make it more difficult for asset bubbles to occur, or that should reduce the economic distortions that result from them when they do occur, rather than ignoring these issues on the ground that in a rational-expectations equilibrium the bubbles should not occur. It should also lead to greater
    attention to the communication policies of central banks and other governmental actors, rather than assuming that official explanations of policy are irrelevant given that economic agents can be expected to have rational expectations — and that these “rational” expectations depend only on governmental actions, not upon speech.”

    “… What we should outgrow… is the aspiration to build models that can not only be regarded (at least provisionally) as correct representations of reality for purposes of policy
    analysis, but that can be assumed to be self-evidently valid to everyone in the economy as well.”

    From “What’s Wrong with Economic Models?”, Michael Woodford, July 2012
    http://ineteconomics.org/sites/inet.civicactions.net/files/Note-9-Woodford.pdf

  9. Just some layman’s questions.

    In a blog imbued by depictions of deterministic chaos, why the optimism about microfoundations?

    Emergent properties are widely identified in other fields. Are they modelled in any DSGE variant?

    Does the universe of microfounded discourse remotely approach the complexity of the universe as observed or observable? Does the degree by which its microfoundatians surpass paleokeynsian or minskian microfoundations amount to more than a drop in the ocean?

    Is faith in rational expectations correlated with personal faiths of individual economists in their own rationality, or that of their sociopolitical circle?

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