The idea of reformulating macroeconomics was all the rage when I studied economics as an undergraduate and graduate student at UCLA in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The UCLA department had largely taken shape in the 1950s and early 1960s around its central figure, Armen Alchian, undoubtedly the greatest pure microeconomist of the second half of the twentieth century in the sense of understanding and applying microeconomics to bring the entire range of economic, financial, legal and social phenomena under its purview, and co-author of the greatest economics textbook ever written. There was simply no problem that he could not attack, using the simple tools one learns in intermediate microeconomics, with a piece of chalk and a blackboard. Alchian’s profound insight (though in this he was anticipated by Coase in his paper on the nature of the firm, and by Hayek’s criticisms of pure equilibrium theory) was that huge chunks of everyday economic activity, such as advertising, the holding of inventories, business firms, contracts, and labor unemployment, simply would not exist in the world characterized by perfect information and zero uncertainty assumed by general-equilibrium theory. For years, Alchian used to say, he could not make sense of Keynes’s General Theory and especially the Keynesian theory of involuntary unemployment, because it seemed to exclude the possibility of equilibration by way of price and wage adjustments, the fundamental mechanism of microeconomic equilibration. It was only when Axel Leijonhufvud arrived on the scene at UCLA, still finishing up his doctoral dissertation, published a few years after his arrival at UCLA as On Keynesian Economics and the Economics of Keynes that Alchian came to understand the deep connections between the Keynesian theory of involuntary unemployment and the kind of informational imperfections that Alchian had been working on for years at the micro-level.
So during my years at UCLA, providing microfoundations for macroeconomics was viewed as an intellectual challenge for gaining a better understanding of Keynesian involuntary unemployment, not as a means of proving that it doesn’t exist. Reformulating macroeconomic theory (I use this phrase in homage to the unpublished paper by the late Earl Thompson, one of Alchian’s very best students) based on microfoundations did not mean simply discarding Keynesian theory into the dustbin of history. Unemployment was viewed as a search process in which workers choose unemployment because it would be irrational to accept the first offer of employment received regardless of the wage being offered. But a big increase in search activity by workers can have feedback effects on aggregate demand preventing a smooth transition to a new equilibrium after an interval of increased search. Alchian, an early member of the Mont Pelerin Society, was able to see the deep connection between Leijonhufvud’s microeconomic rationalization of Keynesian involuntary unemployment and the obscure work, The Theory of Idle Resources, of another member of the MPS, the admirable human being, and unjustly underrated, unfortunately now all but forgotten, economist, W. H. Hutt, who spent most of his professional life engaged in a battle against what he considered the fallacies of J. M. Keynes, especially Keynes’s theory of unemployment.
Unfortunately, this promising approach towards gaining a deeper and richer understanding of the interaction between imperfect information and uncertainty, on the one hand, and, on the other, a process of dynamic macroeconomic adjustment in which both prices and quantities are changing, so that deviations from equilibrium can be cumulative rather than, as conventional equilibrium models assume, self-correcting, has yet to fulfill its promise. Here the story gets complicated, and it would take a much longer explanation than I could possibly reduce to a blog post to tell it adequately. But my own view, in a nutshell, is that the rational-expectations revolution — especially the dogmatic view of how economics ought to be practiced espoused by Robert Lucas and his New Classical, Real Business Cycle and New Keynesian acolytes — has subverted the original aims of the microfoundations project. Rather than relax the informational assumptions underlying conventional equilibrium analysis to allow for a richer and more relevant analysis than is possible when using the tools of standard general-equilibrium theory, Lucas et al. developed sophisticated tools that enabled them to nominally relax the informational assumptions of equilibrium theory while using the tyrannical methodology of rational expectations combined with full market clearing to preserve the essential results of the general-equilibrium model. The combined effect of the faux axiomatic formalism and the narrow conception of microfoundations imposed by the editorial hierarchy of the premier economics journals has been to recreate the gap between the Keynesian theory of involuntary unemployment and rigorous microeconomic reasoning that Alchian, some forty years ago, thought he had found a way to bridge.
Update (1:16PM EST): A commenter points out that the first sentence of my concluding paragraph was left unfinished. That’s what happens when you try to get a post out at 2AM. The sentence is now complete; I hope it’s not to disappointing.