Noah Smith has a classically snide rejoinder to Stephen Williamson’s outrage at Noah’s Bloomberg paean to price stickiness and to the classic Ball and Maniw article on the subject, an article that provoked an embarrassingly outraged response from Robert Lucas when published over 20 years ago. I don’t know if Lucas ever got over it, but evidently Williamson hasn’t.
Now to be fair, Lucas’s outrage, though misplaced, was understandable, at least if one understands that Lucas was so offended by the ironic tone in which Ball and Mankiw cast themselves as defenders of traditional macroeconomics – including both Keynesians and Monetarists – against the onslaught of “heretics” like Lucas, Sargent, Kydland and Prescott that he just stopped reading after the first few pages and then, in a fit of righteous indignation, wrote a diatribe attacking Ball and Mankiw as religious fanatics trying to halt the progress of science as if that was the real message of the paper – not, to say the least, a very sophisticated reading of what Ball and Mankiw wrote.
While I am not hostile to the idea of price stickiness — one of the most popular posts I have written being an attempt to provide a rationale for the stylized (though controversial) fact that wages are stickier than other input, and most output, prices — it does seem to me that there is something ad hoc and superficial about the idea of price stickiness and about many explanations, including those offered by Ball and Mankiw, for price stickiness. I think that the negative reactions that price stickiness elicits from a lot of economists — and not only from Lucas and Williamson — reflect a feeling that price stickiness is not well grounded in any economic theory.
Let me offer a slightly different criticism of price stickiness as a feature of macroeconomic models, which is simply that although price stickiness is a sufficient condition for inefficient macroeconomic fluctuations, it is not a necessary condition. It is entirely possible that even with highly flexible prices, there would still be inefficient macroeconomic fluctuations. And the reason why price flexibility, by itself, is no guarantee against macroeconomic contractions is that macroeconomic contractions are caused by disequilibrium prices, and disequilibrium prices can prevail regardless of how flexible prices are.
The usual argument is that if prices are free to adjust in response to market forces, they will adjust to balance supply and demand, and an equilibrium will be restored by the automatic adjustment of prices. That is what students are taught in Econ 1. And it is an important lesson, but it is also a “partial” lesson. It is partial, because it applies to a single market that is out of equilibrium. The implicit assumption in that exercise is that nothing else is changing, which means that all other markets — well, not quite all other markets, but I will ignore that nuance – are in equilibrium. That’s what I mean when I say (as I have done before) that just as macroeconomics needs microfoundations, microeconomics needs macrofoundations.
Now it’s pretty easy to show that in a single market with an upward-sloping supply curve and a downward-sloping demand curve, that a price-adjustment rule that raises price when there’s an excess demand and reduces price when there’s an excess supply will lead to an equilibrium market price. But that simple price-adjustment rule is hard to generalize when many markets — not just one — are in disequilibrium, because reducing disequilibrium in one market may actually exacerbate disequilibrium, or create a disequilibrium that wasn’t there before, in another market. Thus, even if there is an equilibrium price vector out there, which, if it were announced to all economic agents, would sustain a general equilibrium in all markets, there is no guarantee that following the standard price-adjustment rule of raising price in markets with an excess demand and reducing price in markets with an excess supply will ultimately lead to the equilibrium price vector. Even more disturbing, the standard price-adjustment rule may not, even under a tatonnement process in which no trading is allowed at disequilibrium prices, lead to the discovery of the equilibrium price vector. Of course, in the real world trading occurs routinely at disequilibrium prices, so that the “mechanical” forces tending an economy toward equilibrium are even weaker than the standard analysis of price-adjustment would suggest.
This doesn’t mean that an economy out of equilibrium has no stabilizing tendencies; it does mean that those stabilizing tendencies are not very well understood, and we have almost no formal theory with which to describe how such an adjustment process leading from disequilibrium to equilibrium actually works. We just assume that such a process exists. Franklin Fisher made this point 30 years ago in an important, but insufficiently appreciated, volume Disequilibrium Foundations of Equilibrium Economics. But the idea goes back even further: to Hayek’s important work on intertemporal equilibrium, especially his classic paper “Economics and Knowledge,” formalized by Hicks in the temporary-equilibrium model described in Value and Capital.
The key point made by Hayek in this context is that there can be an intertemporal equilibrium if and only if all agents formulate their individual plans on the basis of the same expectations of future prices. If their expectations for future prices are not the same, then any plans based on incorrect price expectations will have to be revised, or abandoned altogether, as price expectations are disappointed over time. For price adjustment to lead an economy back to equilibrium, the price adjustment must converge on an equilibrium price vector and on correct price expectations. But, as Hayek understood in 1937, and as Fisher explained in a dense treatise 30 years ago, we have no economic theory that explains how such a price vector, even if it exists, is arrived at, and even under a tannonement process, much less under decentralized price setting. Pinning the blame on this vague thing called price stickiness doesn’t address the deeper underlying theoretical issue.
Of course for Lucas et al. to scoff at price stickiness on these grounds is a bit rich, because Lucas and his followers seem entirely comfortable with assuming that the equilibrium price vector is rationally expected. Indeed, rational expectation of the equilibrium price vector is held up by Lucas as precisely the microfoundation that transformed the unruly field of macroeconomics into a real science.