Steve Williamson recently plugged a new book by Kartik Athreya (Big Ideas in Macroeconomics), an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, which tries to explain in relatively non-technical terms what modern macroeconomics is all about. I will acknowledge that my graduate training in macroeconomics predated the rise of modern macro, and I am not fluent in the language of modern macro, though I am trying to fill in the gaps. And this book is a good place to start. I found Athreya’s book a good overview of the field, explaining the fundamental ideas and how they fit together.
Big Ideas in Macroeconomics is a moderately big book, 415 pages, covering a very wide range of topics. It is noteworthy, I think, that despite its size, there is so little overlap between the topics covered in this book, and those covered in more traditional, perhaps old-fashioned, books on macroeconomics. The index contains not a single entry on the price level, inflation, deflation, money, interest, total output, employment or unemployment. Which is not to say that none of those concepts are ever mentioned or discussed, just that they are not treated, as they are in traditional macroeconomics books, as the principal objects of macroeconomic inquiry. The conduct of monetary or fiscal policy to achieve some explicit macroeconomic objective is never discussed. In contrast, there are repeated references to Walrasian equilibrium, the Arrow-Debreu-McKenzie model, the Radner model, Nash-equilibria, Pareto optimality, the first and second Welfare theorems. It’s a new world.
The first two chapters present a fairly detailed description of the idea of Walrasian general equilibrium and its modern incarnation in the canonical Arrow-Debreu-McKenzie (ADM) model.The ADM model describes an economy of utility-maximizing households and profit-maximizing firms engaged in the production and consumption of commodities through time and space. There are markets for commodities dated by time period, specified by location and classified by foreseeable contingent states of the world, so that the same physical commodity corresponds to many separate commodities, each corresponding to different time periods and locations and to contingent states of the world. Prices for such physically identical commodities are not necessarily uniform across times, locations or contingent states.The demand for road salt to de-ice roads depends on whether conditions, which depend on time and location and on states of the world. For each different possible weather contingency, there would be a distinct market for road salt for each location and time period.
The ADM model is solved once for all time periods and all states of the world. Under appropriate conditions, there is one (and possibly more than one) intertemporal equilibrium, all trades being executed in advance, with all deliveries subsequently being carried out, as time an contingencies unfold, in accordance with the terms of the original contracts.
Given the existence of an equilibrium, i.e., a set of prices subject to which all agents are individually optimizing, and all markets are clearing, there are two classical welfare theorems stating that any such equilibrium involves a Pareto-optimal allocation and any Pareto-optimal allocation could be supported by an equilibrium set of prices corresponding to a suitably chosen set of initial endowments. For these optimality results to obtain, it is necessary that markets be complete in the sense that there is a market for each commodity in each time period and contingent state of the world. Without a complete set of markets in this sense, the Pareto-optimality of the Walrasian equilibrium cannot be proved.
Readers may wonder about the process by which an equilibrium price vector would actually be found through some trading process. Athreya invokes the fiction of a Walrasian clearinghouse in which all agents (truthfully) register their notional demands and supplies at alternative price vectors. Based on these responses the clearinghouse is able to determine, by a process of trial and error, the equilibrium price vector. Since the Walrasian clearinghouse presumes that no trading occurs except at an equilibrium price vector, there can be no assurance that an equilibrium price vector would ever be arrived at under an actual trading process in which trading occurs at disequilibrium prices. Moreover, as Clower and Leijonhufvud showed over 40 years ago (“Say’s Principle: What it Means and What it Doesn’t Mean”), trading at disequilibrium prices may cause cumulative contractions of aggregate demand because the total volume of trade at a disequilibrium price will always be less than the volume of trade at an equilibrium price, the volume of trade being constrained by the lesser of quantity supplied and quantity demanded.
In the view of modern macroeconomics, then, Walrasian general equilibrium, as characterized by the ADM model, is the basic and overarching paradigm of macroeconomic analysis. To be sure, modern macroeconomics tries to go beyond the highly restrictive assumptions of the ADM model, but it is not clear whether the concessions made by modern macroeconomics to the real world go very far in enhancing the realism of the basic model.
Chapter 3, contains some interesting reflections on the importance of efficiency (Pareto-optimality) as a policy objective and on the trade-offs between efficiency and equity and between ex-ante and ex-post efficiency. But these topics are on the periphery of macroeconomics, so I will offer no comment here.
In chapter 4, Athreya turns to some common criticisms of modern macroeconomics: that it is too highly aggregated, too wedded to the rationality assumption, too focused on equilibrium steady states, and too highly mathematical. Athreya correctly points out that older macroeconomic models were also highly aggregated, so that if aggregation is a problem it is not unique to modern macroeconomics. That’s a fair point, but skirts some thorny issues. As Athreya acknowledges in chapter 5, an important issue separating certain older macroeconomic traditions (both Keynesian and Austrian among others) is the idea that macroeconomic dysfunction is a manifestation of coordination failure. It is a property – a remarkable property – of Walrasian general equilibrium that it achieves perfect (i.e., Pareto-optimal) coordination of disparate, self-interested, competitive individual agents, fully reconciling their plans in a way that might have been achieved by an omniscient and benevolent central planner. Walrasian general equilibrium fully solves the coordination problem. Insofar as important results of modern macroeconomics depend on the assumption that a real-life economy can be realistically characterized as a Walrasian equilibrium, modern macroeconomics is assuming that coordination failures are irrelevant to macroeconomics. It is only after coordination failures have been excluded from the purview of macroeconomics that it became legitimate (for the sake of mathematical tractability) to deploy representative-agent models in macroeconomics, a coordination failure being tantamount, in the context of a representative agent model, to a form of irrationality on the part of the representative agent. Athreya characterizes choices about the level of aggregation as a trade-off between realism and tractability, but it seems to me that, rather than making a trade-off between realism and tractability, modern macroeconomics has simply made an a priori decision that coordination problems are not a relevant macroeconomic concern.
A similar argument applies to Athreya’s defense of rational expectations and the use of equilibrium in modern macroeconomic models. I would not deny that there are good reasons to adopt rational expectations and full equilibrium in some modeling situations, depending on the problem that theorist is trying to address. The question is whether it can be appropriate to deviate from the assumption of a full rational-expectations equilibrium for the purposes of modeling fluctuations over the course of a business cycle, especially a deep cyclical downturn. In particular, the idea of a Hicksian temporary equilibrium in which agents hold divergent expectations about future prices, but markets clear period by period given those divergent expectations, seems to offer (as in, e.g., Thompson’s “Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory“) more realism and richer empirical content than modern macromodels of rational expectations.
Athreya offers the following explanation and defense of rational expectations:
[Rational expectations] purports to explain the expectations people actually have about the relevant items in their own futures. It does so by asking that their expectations lead to economy-wide outcomes that do not contradict their views. By imposing the requirement that expectations not be systematically contradicted by outcomes, economists keep an unobservable object from becoming a source of “free parameters” through which we can cheaply claim to have “explained” some phenomenon. In other words, in rational-expectations models, expectations are part of what is solved for, and so they are not left to the discretion of the modeler to impose willy-nilly. In so doing, the assumption of rational expectations protects the public from economists.
This defense of rational expectations plainly
belies betrays the methodological arrogance of modern macroeconomics. I am all in favor of solving a model for equilibrium expectations, but solving for equilibrium expectations is certainly not the same as insisting that the only interesting or relevant result of a model is the one generated by the assumption of full equilibrium under rational expectations. (Again see Thompson’s “Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory” as well as the classic paper by Foley and Sidrauski, and this post by Rajiv Sethi on his blog.) It may be relevant and useful to look at a model and examine its properties in a state in which agents hold inconsistent expectations about future prices; the temporary equilibrium existing at a point in time does not correspond to a steady state. Why is such an equilibrium uninteresting and uninformative about what happens in a business cycle? But evidently modern macroeconomists such as Athreya consider it their duty to ban such models from polite discourse — certainly from the leading economics journals — lest the public be tainted by economists who might otherwise dare to abuse their models by making illicit assumptions about expectations formation and equilibrium concepts.
Chapter 5 is the most important chapter of the book. It is in this chapter that Athreya examines in more detail the kinds of adjustments that modern macroeconomists make in the Walrasian/ADM paradigm to accommodate the incompleteness of markets and the imperfections of expectation formation that limit the empirical relevance of the full ADM model as a macroeconomic paradigm. To do so, Athreya starts by explaining how the Radner model in which a less than the full complement of Arrow-Debreu contingent-laims markets is available. In the Radner model, unlike the ADM model, trading takes place through time for those markets that actually exist, so that the full Walrasian equilibrium exists only if agents are able to form correct expectations about future prices. And even if the full Walrasian equilibrium exists, in the absence of a complete set of Arrow-Debreu markets, the classical welfare theorems may not obtain.
To Athreya, these limitations on the Radner version of the Walrasian model seem manageable. After all, if no one really knows how to improve on the equilibrium of the Radner model, the potential existence of Pareto improvements to the Radner equilibrium is not necessarily that big a deal. Athreya expands on the discussion of the Radner model by introducing the neoclassical growth model in both its deterministic and stochastic versions, all the elements of the dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) model that characterizes modern macroeconomics now being in place. Athreya closes out the chapter with additional discussions of the role of further modifications to the basic Walrasian paradigm, particularly search models and overlapping-generations models.
I found the discussion in chapter 5 highly informative and useful, but it doesn’t seem to me that Athreya faces up to the limitations of the Radner model or to the implied disconnect between the Walraisan paradigm and macroeconomic analysis. A full Walrasian equilibrium exists in the Radner model only if all agents correctly anticipate future prices. If they don’t correctly anticipate future prices, then we are in the world of Hicksian temporary equilibrium. But in that world, the kind of coordination failures that Athreya so casually dismisses seem all too likely to occur. In a world of temporary equilibrium, there is no guarantee that intertemporal budget constraints will be effective, because those budget constraint reflect expected, not actual, future prices, and, in temporary equilibrium, expected prices are not the same for all transactors. Budget constraints are not binding in a world in which trading takes place through time based on possibly incorrect expectations of future prices. Not only does this mean that all the standard equilibrium and optimality conditions of Walrasian theory are violated, but that defaults on IOUs and, thus, financial-market breakdowns, are entirely possible.
In a key passage in chapter 5, Athreya dismisses coordination-failure explanations, invidiously characterized as Keynesian, for inefficient declines in output and employment. While acknowledging that such fluctuations could, in theory, be caused by “self-fulfilling pessimism or fear,” Athreya invokes the benchmark Radner trading arrangement of the ADM model. “In the Radner economy, Athreya writes, “households and firms have correct expectations for the spot market prices one period hence.” The justification for that expectational assumption, which seems indistinguishable from the assumption of a full, rational-expectations equilibrium, is left unstated. Athreya continues:
Granting that they indeed have such expectations, we can now ask about the extent to which, in a modern economy, we can have outcomes that are extremely sensitive to them. In particular, is it the case that under fairly plausible conditions, “optimism” and “pessimism” can be self-fulfilling in ways that make everyone (or nearly everyone) better off in the former than the latter?
Athreya argues that this is possible only if the aggregate production function of the economy is characterized by increasing returns to scale, so that productivity increases as output rises.
[W]hat I have in mind is that the structure of the economy must be such that when, for example, all households suddenly defer consumption spending (and save instead), interest rates do not adjust rapidly to forestall such a fall in spending by encouraging firms to invest.
Notice that Athreya makes no distinction between a reduction in consumption in which people shift into long-term real or financial assets and one in which people shift into holding cash. The two cases are hardly identical, but Athreya has nothing to say about the demand for money and its role in macroeconomics.
If they did, under what I will later describe as a “standard” production side for the economy, wages would, barring any countervailing forces, promptly rise (as the capital stock rises and makes workers more productive). In turn, output would not fall in response to pessimism.
What Athreya is saying is that if we assume that there is a reduction in the time preference of households, causing them to defer present consumption in order to increase their future consumption, the shift in time preference should be reflected in a rise in asset prices, causing an increase in the production of durable assets, and leading to an increase in wages insofar as the increase in the stock of fixed capital implies an increase in the marginal product of labor. Thus, if all the consequences of increased thrift are foreseen at the moment that current demand for output falls, there would be a smooth transition from the previous steady state corresponding to a high rate of time preference to the new steady state corresponding to a low rate of time preference.
Fine. If you assume that the economy always remains in full equilibrium, even in the transition from one steady state to another, because everyone has rational expectations, you will avoid a lot of unpleasantness. But what if entrepreneurial expectations do not change instantaneously, and the reduction in current demand for output corresponding to reduced spending on consumption causes entrepreneurs to reduce, not increase, their demand for capital equipment? If, after the shift in time preference, total spending actually falls, there may be a chain of disappointments in expectations, and a series of defaults on IOUs, culminating in a financial crisis. Pessimism may indeed be self-fulfilling. But Athreya has a just-so story to tell, and he seems satisfied that there is no other story to be told. Others may not be so easily satisfied, especially when his just-so story depends on a) the rational expectations assumption that many smart people have a hard time accepting as even remotely plausible, and b) the assumption that no trading takes place at disequilibrium prices. Athreya continues:
Thus, at least within the context of models in which households and firms are not routinely incorrect about the future, multiple self-fulfilling outcomes require particular features of the production side of the economy to prevail.
Actually what Athreya should have said is: “within the context of models in which households and firms always predict future prices correctly.”
In chapter 6, Athreya discusses how modern macroeconomics can and has contributed to the understanding of the financial crisis of 2007-08 and the subsequent downturn and anemic recovery. There is a lot of very useful information and discussion of various issues, especially in connection with banking and financial markets. But further comment at this point would be largely repetitive.
Anyway, despite my obvious and strong disagreements with much of what I read, I learned a lot from Athreya’s well-written and stimulating book, and I actually enjoyed reading it.