My Paper “Hayek, Deflation, Gold, and Nihilism” Is now Available on SSRN

I contributed a chapter entitled “Hayek, Deflation, Gold and Nihilism” to volume 13 of Hayek: A Collaborative Biography edited by Robert Leeson and published in 2018 by Palgrave Macmillan.

I have posted a preliminary draft of that chapter on SSRN. Here is the abstract.

In Hayek’s early writings on business cycle theory and the Great Depression he argued that business cycle downturns including the steep downturn of 1929-31 were caused by unsustainable elongations of capital structure of the economy resulting from bank-financed investment in excess of voluntary saving. Because monetary expansion was the cause of the crisis, Hayek argued that monetary expansion was an inappropriate remedy to cure the deflation and high unemployment caused by the crisis. He therefore recommended allowing the Depression to take its course until the distortions that led to the downturn could be corrected by market forces. However, this view of the Depression was at odds with Hayek’s own neutral money criterion which implied that prices should fall during expansions and rise during contractions so that nominal spending would remain more or less constant over the cycle. Although Hayek strongly favored allowing prices to fall in the expansion, he did not follow the logic of his own theory in favoring generally increasing prices during the contraction. This paper explores the reasons for Hayek’s reluctance to follow the logic of his own theory in his early policy recommendations. The key factors responsible for his early policy recommendations seem to be his attachment to the gold standard and the seeming necessity for countries to accept deflation to maintain convertibility and his hope or expectation that deflation would overwhelm the price rigidities that he believed were obstructing the price mechanism from speeding a recovery. By 1935 Hayek’s attachment to the gold standard was starting to weaken, and in later years he openly acknowledged that he had been mistaken not to favor policy measures, including monetary expansion, designed to stabilize total spending.

“The Idleness of Each Is the Result of the Idleness of All”

Everyone is fretting about how severe the downturn that is now starting and causing the worst plunge in the stock market since the 1929 crash is going to be. Much of the discussion has turned on whether the cause of the downturn is a supply shock or a demand shock. Some, perhaps many, seem to think that if the shock is a supply, rather than a demand, shock, then there is no role for a countercyclical policy response designed to increase demand. In other words, if the downturn is caused by people getting sick from a highly contagious virus, making it dangerous for people to gather together to work, then output will necessarily fall. Because the cutback in the supply of labor necessarily will cause a reduction in output, trying to counteract supply shock by increasing demand, as if an increase in demand could prevent the reduction of output associated with a reduced labor force after the onset of the virus, seems like an exercise in futility.

The problem with that reasoning is that reductions in supply are themselves effectively reductions in demand. The follow-on reductions in demand constitute a secondary contractionary shock on top of the primary supply shock, thereby setting in motion a cumulative process of further reductions in supply and demand. From that aggregate perspective, whether the initial contractionary shock is a shock to supply or to demand is of less importance than ensuring that the cumulative process is short-circuited by placing a floor under aggregate demand (total spending) so that the contraction caused by the initial supply shock does not become self-amplifying.

The interconnectedness of the entire economy, and the inability of any individual to avoid the consequences of a social or economic breakdown by making different (better) choices — e.g., accepting a cut in wages to retain employment — was recognized by the most orthodox of all Cambridge University economists, Frederick Lavington, in his short book The Trade Cycle published in 1922 in the wake of the horrendous 1921-22 depression from which the profound observation that serves as the title of this post is taken.

It’s now 60 years since John Nash defined an equilibrium as a situation in which “each player’s mixed strategy maximizes his payoff if the strategies of the others are held fixed. Thus each player’s strategy is optimal against those of the others.” If the expectations of other agents on which other agents are conditioning their strategies (plans) are sufficiently pessimistic, then an unemployed worker may not be able to find employment at any wage, even if it is only a small fraction of the wage earned when last employed. That situation is not the result of a diminution in the productivity of the worker, but of the worsening expectations underlying the strategies (plans) of other agents.

To call unemployment “voluntary” under such circumstances is like calling the reduced speed of drivers in a traffic jam “voluntary.” To suppose that the intersection of a supply-demand diagram provides a relevant analysis of the problem of unemployment under circumstances in which there are massive layoffs of workers from their jobs is absurd. Nevertheless, modern macroeconomics for the most part proceeds as if the possibility of an inefficient Nash equilibrium is irrelevant to the problems with which it is concerned.

There are only two ways to prevent that cumulative decline from taking hold. The first is to ensure that there is an immediate readjustment of all relative prices to a new equilibrium at which all agents are able to simultaneously formulate and execute optimal plans by buying and selling at market-clearing equilibrium prices. Such an immediate readjustment of relative prices to a new equilibrium price vector is, for a multitude of reasons which I have described in my recent paper “Hayek, Hicks, Radner and Four Equilibrium Concepts,” an extremely implausible outcome.

If an immediate adjustment to an unexpected supply shock that would return a complex economy back to the neighborhood of equilibrium is not even remotely likely, then the only way to ensure against a cumulative decline of aggregate output and employment is to prevent total spending from declining. And if total spending is kept from declining in the face of a decline in total output due to a supply shock, then it follows, as a matter of simple arithmetic, that the prices at which the reduced output will be sold are going to be correspondingly higher than they would have been had output not fallen.

In the face of an adverse supply shock, a spell of inflation lasting as long as the downturn is therefore to be welcomed as benign and salutary, not resisted as evil and destructive. The time for a decline in, or reversal of, inflation ought to be postpone till the recovery is under way.

Noah Smith Gives Elizabeth Warren’s Economic Patriotism Plan Two Cheers; I Give it a Bit Less

Update 2/25/20 4:41pm EST: I wrote this post many months ago; I actually don’t remember where or when, but never posted it. I don’t remember why I didn’t post it. I don’t even know how it got posted, because, having long forgotten about it, I certainly wasn’t trying to post it. I was just searching for another old and published post of mine that I wanted to look at. But since it’s seen the light of day, I guess I will just leave it out there for whoever is interested.

Elizabeth Warren issued another one of her policy documents, this one a plan for advancing what she calls “economic patriotism,” a term that certainly doesn’t resonate in my own ears. But to each his own. Noah Smith lost no time publishing his own analysis of Warren’s proposals, no doubt after giving it a careful reading and a lot of careful thought.

Being less diligent than Noah, I haven’t actually read Warren’s policy proposals, but I did read Noah’s analysis of Warren’s proposals, and  here are some quick reactions to Noah and indirectly to Senator Warren.

It’s safe to say that the postwar free-trade consensus in Washington has crumbled. The main agent of its destruction was President Donald Trump, who fulfilled his campaign promises by canceling free-trade deals and launching trade wars with almost every country with which the U.S. does business. But the turn against free trade is bipartisan — socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders also promised to pull out of some international deals, and some prominent Democrats have backed Trump’s tariffs against China.

Now Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has released a trade plan that goes squarely against the old consensus. Warren’s “A Plan For Economic Patriotism” would seek to revive U.S. industry in a number of ways — some of them smart, some of them problematic. The plan would leverage government-funded research and development to boost industry — a very good but hardly novel idea — and promote manufacturing (Warren also released a companion proposal specifically about manufacturing). The plan also would aggressively promote U.S. exports.

Although the purpose of the plan may be to triangulate Trump on trade, doing more to promote exports is probably a good idea in its own right. There is a growing body of evidence that nudging developing-country manufacturers to export increases their productivity, and some studies suggest that the phenomenon extends to rich countries like the U.S. This makes sense — when a company starts competing in international markets, it must up its game against global competition, improving efficiency, developing new products and so on.  But the U.S. domestic market is so large that American companies are often tempted to ignore the outside world; export promotion would fight this corrosive complacency.

I am inclined to favor free trade, but as I have observed before, the standard case for unilateral free trade is based on a number of implicit welfare assumptions that are not necessarily true and may leave out important considerations that are relevant to an appropriate analysis of trade policy. If we are trying to promote high employment then the best way of doing that is not by raising the price of imports which mainly benefits the owners of specialized domestic capital used in import-competing industries. It would be better to subsidize employment in industries that produce exports encouraging their expansion.

Then there’s the trade deficit. Countries can’t all run trade surpluses at each other’s expense, and attempts to do so can easily degenerate into a game of beggar-thy-neighbor. If a country runs trade deficits in order to fuel a temporary investment boom, which can help growth. But for more than two decades now, the U.S. has run substantial trade deficits even as investment’s share of the economy has fallen:

That suggests that U.S. consumers are consistently living beyond their means, which seems unsustainable. Increasing exports, rather than trying to cut imports as Trump has done, is a smart way to try to make U.S. consumption levels more sustainable.

The problem is how exactly to do it. Warren would dramatically expand the Export-Import bank’s activities, and direct more of its loans to smaller companies instead of big ones — a great idea that I have called for in the past. Warren would also consolidate the vast array of federal government agencies responsible for industrial policy into a single Department of Economic Development — another smart move.

I’m not following Noah’s reasoning. If the trade deficit is, as Noah correctly suggests, a reflection of a low US saving rate compared to saving in other countries, how will subsidizing exports raise the US propensity to save. Increasing the exports of some products will not induce Americans to increase their saving rate. If aggregate US saving doesn’t increase, the size of the trade deficit will not change; only the composition of that deficit will change.

A less savory tool is Warren’s proposal to have the federal government buy only American-made goods — a protectionist move that would do nothing to promote exports and would simply raise costs for the infrastructure that U.S. manufacturers need to be competitive. Warren should discard this piece of the plan.

Agreed.

More actively managing our currency value to promote exports and domestic manufacturing…We should consider a number of tools and work with other countries harmed by currency misalignment to produce a currency value that’s better for our workers and our industries.

The dollar now functions as the world’s so-called reserve currency — other countries hold dollar assets as buffers against capital outflows, and many internationally traded commodities are priced in dollars. This increases global demand for dollars, which pushes up their value against other currencies. That makes it easier for Americans to borrow, but harder for them to export.

It’s hard to see how Warren’s plan would change that state of affairs. Currency intervention would probably come from the Federal Reserve; if the Fed prints dollars, it puts downward pressure on the dollar. But because the U.S. doesn’t have the same control over its financial system that China does, creating all those dollars would risk inflation.  The difficulty of maintaining an independent monetary policy while also targeting exchange rates is a well-known dilemma in international economics.

Precisely. Noah seems to referencing a policy of exchange-rate protection, which I have written about many times already on this blog, based on the classic article on the subject of the eminent Max Corden. The upshot of Corden’s article was that exchange-rate protection can only work if the monetary authority simultaneously intervenes to reduce the value of its currency in the foreign-exchange market by selling its currency in exchange for foreign currencies and tightens its domestic monetary policy. Exchange-rate intervention means increasing the quantity of the domestic currency, thereby causing domestic prices to rise. If domestic prices rise along with the depreciation of the exchange rate of the domestic currency, exporters gain no advantage. If exports are to be promoted by exchange-rate intervention, the monetary authority must either reduce the domestic quantity of money or increase the demand for it (usually by increasing reserve requirements for the banking system) while the exchange rate is depreciated, creating an excess domestic demand for money. If the domestic economy is chronically short of cash, the only way for cash balances to be increased is through reduced expenditure which means that imports will decrease and exports will increase as a result of reduced domestic expenditure. That doesn’t sound like the sort of strategy for currency manipulation to reduce the real effective exchange rate that Senator Warren would be inclined to support

As an alternative, the U.S. could try to stop other countries from holding U.S. dollar reserves and pricing commodities in dollars, thus forfeiting the dollar’s role as the global reserve currency. But this could destabilize the global financial system in ways that are poorly understood, and thus would be a risky move.

In the end, the best approach on the currency may simply be to put pressure on countries that intervene to reduce the value of their own currencies against the dollar. The problem is that China is by far the biggest of these — although it hasn’t had to intervene to hold down the yuan in recent years, its capital controls and currency management policies are still in place, limiting the potential for yuan appreciation. If other countries allow their own currencies to appreciate against the dollar, they’ll be putting themselves in an uncompetitive position relative to China.

Thus, the issues of economic patriotism, export promotion and currency revaluation will ultimately come back to China. Until and unless that giant country gives up its strategy of promoting manufactured exports to the U.S., it will be an uphill battle to correct the U.S.’s imbalances or revive its export competitiveness. A President Warren would be smarter than a President Trump on trade, but she would find herself confronting much the same challenges.

While China probably was a currency manipulator in the early years of this century, as reflected China’s rapid accumulation of foreign exchange, the pace of foreign exchange accumulation has since tapered off. China could be pressured to disgorge some of its enormous foreign-exchange holdings, which would require China to buy more foreign assets or increase imports from abroad. How that could be done is not exactly obvious, but the most likely way to achieve that result would be for the US to aim for a higher rate of inflation thereby increasing the cost to China and other holders of US foreign exchange of holding low-yielding US financial assets. Whether President Warren would find such a policy approach to her liking is far from obvious.

My Paper “Hayek, Hicks, Radner and Four Equilibrium Concepts” Is Now Available Online.

The paper, forthcoming in The Review of Austrian Economics, can be read online.

Here is the abstract:

Hayek was among the first to realize that for intertemporal equilibrium to obtain all agents must have correct expectations of future prices. Before comparing four categories of intertemporal, the paper explains Hayek’s distinction between correct expectations and perfect foresight. The four equilibrium concepts considered are: (1) Perfect foresight equilibrium of which the Arrow-Debreu-McKenzie (ADM) model of equilibrium with complete markets is an alternative version, (2) Radner’s sequential equilibrium with incomplete markets, (3) Hicks’s temporary equilibrium, as extended by Bliss; (4) the Muth rational-expectations equilibrium as extended by Lucas into macroeconomics. While Hayek’s understanding closely resembles Radner’s sequential equilibrium, described by Radner as an equilibrium of plans, prices, and price expectations, Hicks’s temporary equilibrium seems to have been the natural extension of Hayek’s approach. The now dominant Lucas rational-expectations equilibrium misconceives intertemporal equilibrium, suppressing Hayek’s insights thereby retreating to a sterile perfect-foresight equilibrium.

And here is my concluding paragraph:

Four score and three years after Hayek explained how challenging the subtleties of the notion of intertemporal equilibrium and the elusiveness of any theoretical account of an empirical tendency toward intertemporal equilibrium, modern macroeconomics has now built a formidable theoretical apparatus founded on a methodological principle that rejects all the concerns that Hayek found so vexing denies that all those difficulties even exist. Many macroeconomists feel proud of what modern macroeconomics has achieved, but there is reason to think that the path trod by Hayek, Hicks and Radner could have led macroeconomics in a more fruitful direction than the one on which it has been led by Lucas and his associates.

My Review of Seigiorage by Jens Reich Is now Available on SSRN

A draft of my review of Seigniorage by Jens Reich forthcoming in The Journal of the History of Economic Thought is now available on SSRN. Here is the abstract.

This review provides a brief summary description of the book and its eight chapters which review the history of and the history of thought about seigniorage. After the first two introductory chapters, the next four chapters analyze the conditions for optimal seigniorage for three ideal types of currency (commodity, fiat, and credit) and for mixed systems of commodity and credit currencies and fiat and credit currencies. The final chapters discuss how the analysis might be extended to consider optimal seigniorage not in isolation but as part of an integrated fiscal system and how the place of the theory of seigniorage within monetary theory. Despite the valuable contribution Reich makes in providing a detailed overview of the literature on seigniorage and to the analysis of seigniorage, the review notes several topics on which Reich’s analysis of seigniorage is incomplete or insufficiently nuanced.

Graeber Against Economics

David Graeber’s vitriolic essay “Against Economics” in the New York Review of Books has generated responses from Noah Smith and Scott Sumner among others. I don’t disagree with much that Noah or Scott have to say, but I want to dig a little deeper than they did into some of Graeber’s arguments, because even though I think he is badly misinformed on many if not most of the subjects he writes about, I actually have some sympathy for his dissatisfaction with the current state of economics. Graeber wastes no time on pleasantries.

There is a growing feeling, among those who have the responsibility of managing large economies, that the discipline of economics is no longer fit for purpose. It is beginning to look like a science designed to solve problems that no longer exist.

A serious polemicist should avoid blatant mischaracterizations, exaggerations and cheap shots, and should be well-grounded in the object of his critique, thereby avoiding criticisms that undermine his own claims to expertise. I grant that  Graeber has some valid criticisms to make, even agreeing with him, at least in part, on some of them. But his indiscriminate attacks on, and caricatures of, all neoclassical economics betrays a superficial understanding of that discipline.

Graeber begins by attacking what he considers the misguided and obsessive focus on inflation by economists.

A good example is the obsession with inflation. Economists still teach their students that the primary economic role of government—many would insist, its only really proper economic role—is to guarantee price stability. We must be constantly vigilant over the dangers of inflation. For governments to simply print money is therefore inherently sinful.

Every currency unit, or banknote issued by a central bank, now in circulation, as Graeber must know, has been “printed.” So to say that economists consider it sinful for governments to print money is either a deliberate falsehood, or an emotional rhetorical outburst, as Graeber immediately, and apparently unwittingly, acknowledges!

If, however, inflation is kept at bay through the coordinated action of government and central bankers, the market should find its “natural rate of unemployment,” and investors, taking advantage of clear price signals, should be able to ensure healthy growth. These assumptions came with the monetarism of the 1980s, the idea that government should restrict itself to managing the money supply, and by the 1990s had come to be accepted as such elementary common sense that pretty much all political debate had to set out from a ritual acknowledgment of the perils of government spending. This continues to be the case, despite the fact that, since the 2008 recession, central banks have been printing money frantically [my emphasis] in an attempt to create inflation and compel the rich to do something useful with their money, and have been largely unsuccessful in both endeavors.

Graeber’s use of the ambiguous pronoun “this” beginning the last sentence of the paragraph betrays his own confusion about what he is saying. Central banks are printing money and attempting to “create” inflation while supposedly still believing that inflation is a menace and printing money is a sin. Go figure.

We now live in a different economic universe than we did before the crash. Falling unemployment no longer drives up wages. Printing money does not cause inflation. Yet the language of public debate, and the wisdom conveyed in economic textbooks, remain almost entirely unchanged.

Again showing an inadequate understanding of basic economic theory, Graeber suggests that, in theory if not practice, falling unemployment should cause wages to rise. The Philips Curve, upon which Graeber’s suggestion relies, represents the empirically observed negative correlation between the rate of average wage increase and the rate of unemployment. But correlation does not imply causation, so there is no basis in economic theory to assert that falling unemployment causes the rate of increase in wages to accelerate. That the empirical correlation between unemployment and wage increases has not recently been in evidence provides no compelling reason for changing textbook theory.

From this largely unfounded and attack on economic theory – a theory which I myself consider, in many respects, inadequate and unreliable – Graeber launches a bitter diatribe against the supposed hegemony of economists over policy-making.

Mainstream economists nowadays might not be particularly good at predicting financial crashes, facilitating general prosperity, or coming up with models for preventing climate change, but when it comes to establishing themselves in positions of intellectual authority, unaffected by such failings, their success is unparalleled. One would have to look at the history of religions to find anything like it.

The ability to predict financial crises would be desirable, but that cannot be the sole criterion for whether economics has advanced our understanding of how economic activity is organized or what effects policy changes have. (I note parenthetically that many economists defensively reject the notion that economic crises are predictable on the grounds that if economists could predict a future economic crisis, those predictions would be immediately self-fulfilling. This response, of course, effectively disproves the idea that economists could predict that an economic crisis would occur in the way that astronomers predict solar eclipses. But this response slays a strawman. The issue is not whether economists can predict future crises, but whether they can identify conditions indicating an increased likelihood of a crisis and suggest precautionary measures to reduce the likelihood that a potential crisis will occur. But Graeber seems uninterested in or incapable of engaging the question at even this moderate level of subtlety.)

In general, I doubt that economists can make more than a modest contribution to improved policy-making, and the best that one can hope for is probably that they steer us away from the worst potential decisions rather than identifying the best ones. But no one, as far as I know, has yet been burned at the stake by a tribunal of economists.

To this day, economics continues to be taught not as a story of arguments—not, like any other social science, as a welter of often warring theoretical perspectives—but rather as something more like physics, the gradual realization of universal, unimpeachable mathematical truths. “Heterodox” theories of economics do, of course, exist (institutionalist, Marxist, feminist, “Austrian,” post-Keynesian…), but their exponents have been almost completely locked out of what are considered “serious” departments, and even outright rebellions by economics students (from the post-autistic economics movement in France to post-crash economics in Britain) have largely failed to force them into the core curriculum.

I am now happy to register agreement with something that Graeber says. Economists in general have become overly attached to axiomatic and formalistic mathematical models that create a false and misleading impression of rigor and mathematical certainty. In saying this, I don’t dispute that mathematical modeling is an important part of much economic theorizing, but it should not exclude other approaches to economic analysis and discourse.

As a result, heterodox economists continue to be treated as just a step or two away from crackpots, despite the fact that they often have a much better record of predicting real-world economic events. What’s more, the basic psychological assumptions on which mainstream (neoclassical) economics is based—though they have long since been disproved by actual psychologists—have colonized the rest of the academy, and have had a profound impact on popular understandings of the world.

That heterodox economists have a better record of predicting economic events than mainstream economists is an assertion for which Graeber offers no evidence or examples. I would not be surprised if he could cite examples, but one would have to weigh the evidence surrounding those examples before concluding that predictions by heterodox economists were more accurate than those of their mainstream counterparts.

Graeber returns to the topic of monetary theory, which seems a particular bugaboo of his. Taking the extreme liberty of holding up Mrs. Theresa May as a spokesperson for orthodox economics, he focuses on her definitive 2017 statement that there is no magic money tree.

The truly extraordinary thing about May’s phrase is that it isn’t true. There are plenty of magic money trees in Britain, as there are in any developed economy. They are called “banks.” Since modern money is simply credit, banks can and do create money literally out of nothing, simply by making loans. Almost all of the money circulating in Britain at the moment is bank-created in this way.

What Graeber chooses to ignore is that banks do not operate magically; they make loans and create deposits in seeking to earn profits; their decisions are not magical, but are oriented toward making profits. Whether they make good or bad decisions is debatable, but the debate isn’t about a magical process; it’s a debate about theory and evidence. Graeber describe how he thinks that economists think about how banks create money, correctly observing that there is a debate about how that process works, but without understanding those differences or their significance.

Economists, for obvious reasons, can’t be completely oblivious to the role of banks, but they have spent much of the twentieth century arguing about what actually happens when someone applies for a loan. One school insists that banks transfer existing funds from their reserves, another that they produce new money, but only on the basis of a multiplier effect). . . Only a minority—mostly heterodox economists, post-Keynesians, and modern money theorists—uphold what is called the “credit creation theory of banking”: that bankers simply wave a magic wand and make the money appear, secure in the confidence that even if they hand a client a credit for $1 million, ultimately the recipient will put it back in the bank again, so that, across the system as a whole, credits and debts will cancel out. Rather than loans being based in deposits, in this view, deposits themselves were the result of loans.

The one thing it never seemed to occur to anyone to do was to get a job at a bank, and find out what actually happens when someone asks to borrow money. In 2014 a German economist named Richard Werner did exactly that, and discovered that, in fact, loan officers do not check their existing funds, reserves, or anything else. They simply create money out of thin air, or, as he preferred to put it, “fairy dust.”

Graeber is right that economists differ in how they understand banking. But the simple transfer-of-funds view, a product of the eighteenth century, was gradually rejected over the course of the nineteenth century; the money-multiplier view largely superseded it, enjoying a half-century or more of dominance as a theory of banking, still remains a popular way for introductory textbooks to explain how banking works, though it would be better if it were decently buried and forgotten. But since James Tobin’s classic essay “Commercial banks as creators of money” was published in 1963, most economists who have thought carefully about banking have concluded that the amount of deposits created by banks corresponds to the quantity of deposits that the public, given their expectations about the future course of the economy and the future course of prices, chooses to hold. The important point is that while a bank can create deposits without incurring more than the negligible cost of making a book-keeping, or an electronic, entry in a customer’s account, the creation of a deposit is typically associated with a demand by the bank to hold either reserves in its account with the Fed or to hold some amount of Treasury instruments convertible, on very short notice, into reserves at the Fed.

Graeber seems to think that there is something fundamental at stake for the whole of macroeconomics in the question whether deposits created loans or loans create deposits. I agree that it’s an important question, but not as significant as Graeber believes. But aside from that nuance, what’s remarkable is that Graeber actually acknowledges that the weight of professional opinion is on the side that says that loans create deposits. He thus triumphantly cites a report by Bank of England economists that correctly explained that banks create money and do so in the normal course of business by making loans.

Before long, the Bank of England . . . rolled out an elaborate official report called “Money Creation in the Modern Economy,” replete with videos and animations, making the same point: existing economics textbooks, and particularly the reigning monetarist orthodoxy, are wrong. The heterodox economists are right. Private banks create money. Central banks like the Bank of England create money as well, but monetarists are entirely wrong to insist that their proper function is to control the money supply.

Graeber, I regret to say, is simply exposing the inadequacy of his knowledge of the history of economics. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations explained that banks create money who, in doing so, saved the resources that would have been wasted on creating additional gold and silver. Subsequent economists from David Ricardo through Henry Thornton, J. S. Mill and R. G. Hawtrey were perfectly aware that banks can supply money — either banknotes or deposits — at less than the cost of mining and minting new coins, as they extend their credit in making loans to borrowers. So what is at issue, Graeber to the contrary notwithstanding, is not a dispute between orthodoxy and heterodoxy.

In fact, central banks do not in any sense control the money supply; their main function is to set the interest rate—to determine how much private banks can charge for the money they create.

Central banks set a rental price for reserves, thereby controlling the quantity of reserves into which bank deposits are convertible that is available to the economy. One way to think about that quantity is that the quantity of reserves along with the aggregate demand to hold reserves determines the exchange value of reserves and hence the price level; another way to think about it is that the interest rate or the implied policy stance of the central bank helps to determine the expectations of the public about the future course of the price level which is what determines – within some margin of error or range – what the future course of the price level will turn out to be.

Almost all public debate on these subjects is therefore based on false premises. For example, if what the Bank of England was saying were true, government borrowing didn’t divert funds from the private sector; it created entirely new money that had not existed before.

This is just silly. Funds may or may not be diverted from the private sector, but the total available resources to society is finite. If the central bank creates additional money, it creates additional claims to those resources and the creation of additional claims to resources necessarily has an effect on the prices of inputs and of outputs.

One might have imagined that such an admission would create something of a splash, and in certain restricted circles, it did. Central banks in Norway, Switzerland, and Germany quickly put out similar papers. Back in the UK, the immediate media response was simply silence. The Bank of England report has never, to my knowledge, been so much as mentioned on the BBC or any other TV news outlet. Newspaper columnists continued to write as if monetarism was self-evidently correct. Politicians continued to be grilled about where they would find the cash for social programs. It was as if a kind of entente cordiale had been established, in which the technocrats would be allowed to live in one theoretical universe, while politicians and news commentators would continue to exist in an entirely different one.

Even if we stipulate that this characterization of what the BBC and newspaper columnists believe is correct, what we would have — at best — is a commentary on the ability of economists to communicate their understanding of how the economy works to the intelligentsia that communicates to ordinary citizens. It is not in and of itself a commentary on the state of economic knowledge, inasmuch as Graeber himself concedes that most economists don’t accept monetarism. And that has been the case, as Noah Smith pointed out in his Bloomberg column on Graeber, since the early 1980s when the Monetarist experiment in trying to conduct monetary policy by controlling the monetary aggregates proved entirely unworkable and had to be abandoned as it was on the verge of precipitating a financial crisis.

Only after this long warmup decrying the sorry state of contemporary economic theory does Graeber begin discussing the book under review Money and Government by Robert Skidelsky.

What [Skidelsky] reveals is an endless war between two broad theoretical perspectives. . . The crux of the argument always seems to turn on the nature of money. Is money best conceived of as a physical commodity, a precious substance used to facilitate exchange, or is it better to see money primarily as a credit, a bookkeeping method or circulating IOU—in any case, a social arrangement? This is an argument that has been going on in some form for thousands of years. What we call “money” is always a mixture of both, and, as I myself noted in Debt (2011), the center of gravity between the two tends to shift back and forth over time. . . .One important theoretical innovation that these new bullion-based theories of money allowed was, as Skidelsky notes, what has come to be called the quantity theory of money (usually referred to in textbooks—since economists take endless delight in abbreviations—as QTM).

But these two perspectives are not mutually exclusive, and, depending on time, place, circumstances, and the particular problem that is the focus of attention, either of the two may be the appropriate paradigm for analysis.

The QTM argument was first put forward by a French lawyer named Jean Bodin, during a debate over the cause of the sharp, destablizing price inflation that immediately followed the Iberian conquest of the Americas. Bodin argued that the inflation was a simple matter of supply and demand: the enormous influx of gold and silver from the Spanish colonies was cheapening the value of money in Europe. The basic principle would no doubt have seemed a matter of common sense to anyone with experience of commerce at the time, but it turns out to have been based on a series of false assumptions. For one thing, most of the gold and silver extracted from Mexico and Peru did not end up in Europe at all, and certainly wasn’t coined into money. Most of it was transported directly to China and India (to buy spices, silks, calicoes, and other “oriental luxuries”), and insofar as it had inflationary effects back home, it was on the basis of speculative bonds of one sort or another. This almost always turns out to be true when QTM is applied: it seems self-evident, but only if you leave most of the critical factors out.

In the case of the sixteenth-century price inflation, for instance, once one takes account of credit, hoarding, and speculation—not to mention increased rates of economic activity, investment in new technology, and wage levels (which, in turn, have a lot to do with the relative power of workers and employers, creditors and debtors)—it becomes impossible to say for certain which is the deciding factor: whether the money supply drives prices, or prices drive the money supply.

As a matter of logic, if the value of money depends on the precious metals (gold or silver) from which coins were minted, the value of money is necessarily affected by a change in the value of the metals used to coin money. Because a large increase in the stock of gold and silver, as Graeber concedes, must reduce the value of those metals, subsequent inflation then being attributable, at least in part, to the gold and silver discoveries even if the newly mined gold and silver was shipped mainly to privately held Indian and Chinese hoards rather than minted into new coins. An exogenous increase in prices may well have caused the quantity of credit money to increase, but that is analytically distinct from the inflationary effect of a reduced value of gold or silver when, as was the case in the sixteenth century, money is legally defined as a specific weight of gold or silver.

Technically, this comes down to a choice between what are called exogenous and endogenous theories of money. Should money be treated as an outside factor, like all those Spanish dubloons supposedly sweeping into Antwerp, Dublin, and Genoa in the days of Philip II, or should it be imagined primarily as a product of economic activity itself, mined, minted, and put into circulation, or more often, created as credit instruments such as loans, in order to meet a demand—which would, of course, mean that the roots of inflation lie elsewhere?

There is no such choice, because any theory must posit certain initial conditions and definitions, which are given or exogenous to the analysis. How the theory is framed and which variables are treated as exogenous and which are treated as endogenous is a matter of judgment in light of the problem and the circumstances. Graeber is certainly correct that, in any realistic model, the quantity of money is endogenously, not exogenously, determined, but that doesn’t mean that the value of gold and silver may not usefully be treated as exogenous in a system in which money is defined as a weight of gold or silver.

To put it bluntly: QTM is obviously wrong. Doubling the amount of gold in a country will have no effect on the price of cheese if you give all the gold to rich people and they just bury it in their yards, or use it to make gold-plated submarines (this is, incidentally, why quantitative easing, the strategy of buying long-term government bonds to put money into circulation, did not work either). What actually matters is spending.

Graeber is talking in circles, failing to distinguish between the quantity theory of money – a theory about the value of a pure medium of exchange with no use except to be received in exchange — and a theory of the real value of gold and silver when money is defined as a weight of gold or silver. The value of gold (or silver) in monetary uses must be roughly equal to its value in non-monetary uses. which is determined by the total stock of gold and the demand to hold gold or to use it in coinage or for other uses (e.g., jewelry and ornamentation). An increase in the stock of gold relative to demand must reduce its value. That relationship between price and quantity is not the same as QTM. The quantity of a metallic money will increase as its value in non-monetary uses declines. If there is literally an unlimited demand for newly mined gold to be immediately sent unused into hoards, Graeber’s argument would be correct. But the fact that much of the newly mined gold initially went into hoards does not mean that all of the newly mined gold went into hoards.

In sum, Graeber is confused between the quantity theory of money and a theory of a commodity money used both as money and as a real commodity. The quantity theory of money of a pure medium of exchange posits that changes in the quantity of money cause proportionate changes in the price level. Changes in the quantity of a real commodity also used as money have nothing to do with the quantity theory of money.

Relying on a dubious account of the history of monetary theory by Skidelsky, Graeber blames the obsession of economists with the quantity theory for repeated monetary disturbances starting with the late 17th century deflation in Britain when silver appreciated relative to gold causing prices measured in silver to fall. Graeber thus fails to see that under a metallic money, real disturbances do have repercussion on the level of prices, repercussions having nothing to do with an exogenous prior change in the quantity of money.

According to Skidelsky, the pattern was to repeat itself again and again, in 1797, the 1840s, the 1890s, and, ultimately, the late 1970s and early 1980s, with Thatcher and Reagan’s (in each case brief) adoption of monetarism. Always we see the same sequence of events:

(1) The government adopts hard-money policies as a matter of principle.

(2) Disaster ensues.

(3) The government quietly abandons hard-money policies.

(4) The economy recovers.

(5) Hard-money philosophy nonetheless becomes, or is reinforced as, simple universal common sense.

There is so much indiscriminate generalization here that it is hard to know what to make of it. But the conduct of monetary policy has always been fraught, and learning has been slow and painful. We can and must learn to do better, but blanket condemnations of economics are unlikely to lead to better outcomes.

How was it possible to justify such a remarkable string of failures? Here a lot of the blame, according to Skidelsky, can be laid at the feet of the Scottish philosopher David Hume. An early advocate of QTM, Hume was also the first to introduce the notion that short-term shocks—such as Locke produced—would create long-term benefits if they had the effect of unleashing the self-regulating powers of the market:

Actually I agree that Hume, as great and insightful a philosopher as he was and as sophisticated an economic observer as he was, was an unreliable monetary theorist. And one of the reasons he was led astray was his unwarranted attachment to the quantity theory of money, an attachment that was not shared by his close friend Adam Smith.

Ever since Hume, economists have distinguished between the short-run and the long-run effects of economic change, including the effects of policy interventions. The distinction has served to protect the theory of equilibrium, by enabling it to be stated in a form which took some account of reality. In economics, the short-run now typically stands for the period during which a market (or an economy of markets) temporarily deviates from its long-term equilibrium position under the impact of some “shock,” like a pendulum temporarily dislodged from a position of rest. This way of thinking suggests that governments should leave it to markets to discover their natural equilibrium positions. Government interventions to “correct” deviations will only add extra layers of delusion to the original one.

I also agree that focusing on long-run equilibrium without regard to short-run fluctuations can lead to terrible macroeconomic outcomes, but that doesn’t mean that long-run effects are never of concern and may be safely disregarded. But just as current suffering must not be disregarded when pursuing vague and uncertain long-term benefits, ephemeral transitory benefits shouldn’t obscure serious long-term consequences. Weighing such alternatives isn’t easy, but nothing is gained by denying that the alternatives exist. Making those difficult choices is inherent in policy-making, whether macroeconomic or climate policy-making.

Although Graeber takes a valid point – that a supposed tendency toward an optimal long-run equilibrium does not justify disregard of an acute short-term problem – to an extreme, his criticism of the New Classical approach to policy-making that replaced the flawed mainstream Keynesian macroeconomics of the late 1970s is worth listening to. The New Classical approach self-consciously rejected any policy aimed at short-run considerations owing to a time-inconsistency paradox was based almost entirely on the logic of general-equilibrium theory and an illegitimate methodological argument rejecting all macroeconomic theories not rigorously deduced from the unarguable axiom of optimizing behavior by rational agents (and therefore not, in the official jargon, microfounded) as unscientific and unworthy of serious consideration in the brave New Classical world of scientific macroeconomics.

It’s difficult for outsiders to see what was really at stake here, because the argument has come to be recounted as a technical dispute between the roles of micro- and macroeconomics. Keynesians insisted that the former is appropriate to studying the behavior of individual households or firms, trying to optimize their advantage in the marketplace, but that as soon as one begins to look at national economies, one is moving to an entirely different level of complexity, where different sorts of laws apply. Just as it is impossible to understand the mating habits of an aardvark by analyzing all the chemical reactions in their cells, so patterns of trade, investment, or the fluctuations of interest or employment rates were not simply the aggregate of all the microtransactions that seemed to make them up. The patterns had, as philosophers of science would put it, “emergent properties.” Obviously, it was necessary to understand the micro level (just as it was necessary to understand the chemicals that made up the aardvark) to have any chance of understand the macro, but that was not, in itself, enough.

As an aisde, it’s worth noting that the denial or disregard of the possibility of any emergent properties by New Classical economists (of which what came to be known as New Keynesian economics is really a mildly schismatic offshoot) is nicely illustrated by the un-self-conscious alacrity with which the representative-agent approach was adopted as a modeling strategy in the first few generations of New Classical models. That New Classical theorists now insist that representative agency is not an essential to New Classical modeling is true, but the methodologically reductive nature of New Classical macroeconomics, in which all macroeconomic theories must be derived under the axiom of individually maximizing behavior except insofar as specific “frictions” are introduced by explicit assumption, is essential. (See here, here, and here)

The counterrevolutionaries, starting with Keynes’s old rival Friedrich Hayek . . . took aim directly at this notion that national economies are anything more than the sum of their parts. Politically, Skidelsky notes, this was due to a hostility to the very idea of statecraft (and, in a broader sense, of any collective good). National economies could indeed be reduced to the aggregate effect of millions of individual decisions, and, therefore, every element of macroeconomics had to be systematically “micro-founded.”

Hayek’s role in the microfoundations movement is important, but his position was more sophisticated and less methodologically doctrinaire than that of the New Classical macroeconomists, if for no other reason than that Hayek didn’t believe that macroeconomics should, or could, be derived from general-equilibrium theory. His criticism, like that of economists like Clower and Leijonhufvud, of Keynesian macroeconomics for being insufficiently grounded in microeconomic principles, was aimed at finding microeconomic arguments that could explain and embellish and modify the propositions of Keynesian macroeconomic theory. That is the sort of scientific – not methodological — reductivism that Hayek’s friend Karl Popper advocated: a theoretical and empirical challenge of reducing a higher level theory to its more fundamental foundations, e.g., when physicists and chemists search for theoretical breakthroughs that allow the propositions of chemistry to be reduced to more fundamental propositions of physics. The attempt to reduce chemistry to underlying physical principles is very different from a methodological rejection of all chemistry that cannot be derived from underlying deep physical theories.

There is probably more than a grain of truth in Graeber’s belief that there was a political and ideological subtext in the demand for microfoundations by New Classical macroeconomists, but the success of the microfoundations program was also the result of philosophically unsophisticated methodological error. How to apportion the share of blame going to mistaken methodology, professional and academic opportunism, and a hidden political agenda is a question worthy of further investigation. The easy part is to identify the mistaken methodology, which Graeber does. As for the rest, Graeber simply asserts bad faith, but with little evidence.

In Graeber’s comprehensive condemnation of modern economics, the efficient market hypothesis, being closely related to the rational-expectations hypothesis so central to New Classical economics, is not spared either. Here again, though I share and sympathize with his disdain for EMH, Graeber can’t resist exaggeration.

In other words, we were obliged to pretend that markets could not, by definition, be wrong—if in the 1980s the land on which the Imperial compound in Tokyo was built, for example, was valued higher than that of all the land in New York City, then that would have to be because that was what it was actually worth. If there are deviations, they are purely random, “stochastic” and therefore unpredictable, temporary, and, ultimately, insignificant.

Of course, no one is obliged to pretend that markets could not be wrong — and certainly not by a definition. The EMH simply asserts that the price of an asset reflects all the publicly available information. But what EMH asserts is certainly not true in many or even most cases, because people with non-public information (or with superior capacity to process public information) may affect asset prices, and such people may profit at the expense of those less knowledgeable or less competent in anticipating price changes. Moreover, those advantages may result from (largely wasted) resources devoted to acquiring and processing information, and it is those people who make fortunes betting on the future course of asset prices.

Graeber then quotes Skidelsky approvingly:

There is a paradox here. On the one hand, the theory says that there is no point in trying to profit from speculation, because shares are always correctly priced and their movements cannot be predicted. But on the other hand, if investors did not try to profit, the market would not be efficient because there would be no self-correcting mechanism. . .

Secondly, if shares are always correctly priced, bubbles and crises cannot be generated by the market….

This attitude leached into policy: “government officials, starting with [Fed Chairman] Alan Greenspan, were unwilling to burst the bubble precisely because they were unwilling to even judge that it was a bubble.” The EMH made the identification of bubbles impossible because it ruled them out a priori.

So the apparent paradox that concerns Skidelsky and Graeber dissolves upon (only a modest amount of) further reflection. Proper understanding and revision of the EMH makes it clear that bubbles can occur. But that doesn’t mean that bursting bubbles is a job that can be safely delegated to any agency, including the Fed.

Moreover, the housing bubble peaked in early 2006, two and a half years before the financial crisis in September 2008. The financial crisis was not unrelated to the housing bubble, which undoubtedly added to the fragility of the financial system and its vulnerability to macroeconomic shocks, but the main cause of the crisis was Fed policy that was unnecessarily focused on a temporary blip in commodity prices persuading the Fed not to loosen policy in 2008 during a worsening recession. That was a scenario similar to the one in 1929 when concern about an apparent stock-market bubble caused the Fed to repeatedly tighten money, raising interest rates, thereby causing a downturn and crash of asset prices triggering the Great Depression.

Graeber and Skidelsky correctly identify some of the problems besetting macroeconomics, but their indiscriminate attack on all economic theory is unlikely to improve the situation. A pity, because a focused and sophisticated critique of economics than they have served up has never been more urgently needed than it is now to enable economists to perform the modest service to mankind of which they might be capable.

Jack Schwartz on the Weaknesses of the Mathematical Mind

I was recently rereading an essay by Karl Popper, “A Realistic View of Logic, Physics, and History” published in his collection of essays, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, because it discusses the role of reductivism in science and philosophy, a topic about which I’ve written a number of previous posts discussing the microfoundations of macroeconomics.

Here is an important passage from Popper’s essay:

What I should wish to assert is (1) that criticism is a most important methodological device: and (2) that if you answer criticism by saying, “I do not like your logic: your logic may be all right for you, but I prefer a different logic, and according to my logic this criticism is not valid”, then you may undermine the method of critical discussion.

Now I should distinguish between two main uses of logic, namely (1) its use in the demonstrative sciences – that is to say, the mathematical sciences – and (2) its use in the empirical sciences.

In the demonstrative sciences logic is used in the main for proofs – for the transmission of truth – while in the empirical sciences it is almost exclusively used critically – for the retransmission of falsity. Of course, applied mathematics comes in too, which implicitly makes use of the proofs of pure mathematics, but the role of mathematics in the empirical sciences is somewhat dubious in several respects. (There exists a wonderful article by Schwartz to this effect.)

The article to which Popper refers appears by Jack Schwartz in a volume edited by Ernst Nagel, Patrick Suppes, and Alfred Tarski, Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science. The title of the essay, “The Pernicious Influence of Mathematics on Science” caught my eye, so I tried to track it down. Unavailable on the internet except behind a paywall, I bought a used copy for $6 including postage. The essay was well worth the $6 I paid to read it.

Before quoting from the essay, I would just note that Jacob T. (Jack) Schwartz was far from being innocent of mathematical and scientific knowledge. Here’s a snippet from the Wikipedia entry on Schwartz.

His research interests included the theory of linear operatorsvon Neumann algebrasquantum field theorytime-sharingparallel computingprogramming language design and implementation, robotics, set-theoretic approaches in computational logicproof and program verification systems; multimedia authoring tools; experimental studies of visual perception; multimedia and other high-level software techniques for analysis and visualization of bioinformatic data.

He authored 18 books and more than 100 papers and technical reports.

He was also the inventor of the Artspeak programming language that historically ran on mainframes and produced graphical output using a single-color graphical plotter.[3]

He served as Chairman of the Computer Science Department (which he founded) at the Courant Institute of Mathematical SciencesNew York University, from 1969 to 1977. He also served as Chairman of the Computer Science Board of the National Research Council and was the former Chairman of the National Science Foundation Advisory Committee for Information, Robotics and Intelligent Systems. From 1986 to 1989, he was the Director of DARPA‘s Information Science and Technology Office (DARPA/ISTO) in Arlington, Virginia.

Here is a link to his obituary.

Though not trained as an economist, Schwartz, an autodidact, wrote two books on economic theory.

With that introduction, I quote from, and comment on, Schwartz’s essay.

Our announced subject today is the role of mathematics in the formulation of physical theories. I wish, however, to make use of the license permitted at philosophical congresses, in two regards: in the first place, to confine myself to the negative aspects of this role, leaving it to others to dwell on the amazing triumphs of the mathematical method; in the second place, to comment not only on physical science but also on social science, in which the characteristic inadequacies which I wish to discuss are more readily apparent.

Computer programmers often make a certain remark about computing machines, which may perhaps be taken as a complaint: that computing machines, with a perfect lack of discrimination, will do any foolish thing they are told to do. The reason for this lies of course in the narrow fixation of the computing machines “intelligence” upon the basely typographical details of its own perceptions – its inability to be guided by any large context. In a psychological description of the computer intelligence, three related adjectives push themselves forward: single-mindedness, literal-mindedness, simple-mindedness. Recognizing this, we should at the same time recognize that this single-mindedness, literal-mindedness, simple-mindedness also characterizes theoretical mathematics, though to a lesser extent.

It is a continual result of the fact that science tries to deal with reality that even the most precise sciences normally work with more or less ill-understood approximations toward which the scientist must maintain an appropriate skepticism. Thus, for instance, it may come as a shock to the mathematician to learn that the Schrodinger equation for the hydrogen atom, which he is able to solve only after a considerable effort of functional analysis and special function theory, is not a literally correct description of this atom, but only an approximation to a somewhat more correct equation taking account of spin, magnetic dipole, and relativistic effects; that this corrected equation is itself only an ill-understood approximation to an infinite set of quantum field-theoretic equations; and finally that the quantum field theory, besides diverging, neglects a myriad of strange-particle interactions whose strength and form are largely unknown. The physicist looking at the original Schrodinger equation, learns to sense in it the presence of many invisible terms, integral, intergrodifferential, perhaps even more complicated types of operators, in addition to the differential terms visible, and this sense inspires an entirely appropriate disregard for the purely technical features of the equation which he sees. This very healthy self-skepticism is foreign to the mathematical approach. . . .

Schwartz, in other words, is noting that the mathematical equations that physicists use in many contexts cannot be relied upon without qualification as accurate or exact representations of reality. The understanding that the mathematics that physicists and other physical scientists use to express their theories is often inexact or approximate inasmuch as reality is more complicated than our theories can capture mathematically. Part of what goes into the making of a good scientist is a kind of artistic feeling for how to adjust or interpret a mathematical model to take into account what the bare mathematics cannot describe in a manageable way.

The literal-mindedness of mathematics . . . makes it essential, if mathematics is to be appropriately used in science, that the assumptions upon which mathematics is to elaborate be correctly chosen from a larger point of view, invisible to mathematics itself. The single-mindedness of mathematics reinforces this conclusion. Mathematics is able to deal successfully only with the simplest of situations, more precisely, with a complex situation only to the extent that rare good fortune makes this complex situation hinge upon a few dominant simple factors. Beyond the well-traversed path, mathematics loses its bearing in a jungle of unnamed special functions and impenetrable combinatorial particularities. Thus, mathematical technique can only reach far if it starts from a point close to the simple essentials of a problem which has simple essentials. That form of wisdom which is the opposite of single-mindedness, the ability to keep many threads in hand, to draw for an argument from many disparate sources, is quite foreign to mathematics. The inability accounts for much of the difficulty which mathematics experiences in attempting to penetrate the social sciences. We may perhaps attempt a mathematical economics – but how difficult would be a mathematical history! Mathematics adjusts only with reluctance to the external, and vitally necessary, approximating of the scientists, and shudders each time a batch of small terms is cavalierly erased. Only with difficulty does it find its way to the scientist’s ready grasp of the relative importance of many factors. Quite typically, science leaps ahead and mathematics plods behind.

Schwartz having referenced mathematical economics, let me try to restate his point more concretely than he did by referring to the Walrasian theory of general equilibrium. “Mathematics,” Schwartz writes, “adjusts only with reluctance to the external, and vitally necessary, approximating of the scientists, and shudders each time a batch of small terms is cavalierly erased.” The Walrasian theory is at once too general and too special to be relied on as an applied theory. It is too general because the functional forms of most of its reliant equations can’t be specified or even meaningfully restricted on very special simplifying assumptions; it is too special, because the simplifying assumptions about the agents and the technologies and the constraints and the price-setting mechanism are at best only approximations and, at worst, are entirely divorced from reality.

Related to this deficiency of mathematics, and perhaps more productive of rueful consequence, is the simple-mindedness of mathematics – its willingness, like that of a computing machine, to elaborate upon any idea, however absurd; to dress scientific brilliancies and scientific absurdities alike in the impressive uniform of formulae and theorems. Unfortunately however, an absurdity in uniform is far more persuasive than an absurdity unclad. The very fact that a theory appears in mathematical form, that, for instance, a theory has provided the occasion for the application of a fixed-point theorem, or of a result about difference equations, somehow makes us more ready to take it seriously. And the mathematical-intellectual effort of applying the theorem fixes in us the particular point of view of the theory with which we deal, making us blind to whatever appears neither as a dependent nor as an independent parameter in its mathematical formulation. The result, perhaps most common in the social sciences, is bad theory with a mathematical passport. The present point is best established by reference to a few horrible examples. . . . I confine myself . . . to the citation of a delightful passage from Keynes’ General Theory, in which the issues before us are discussed with a characteristic wisdom and wit:

“It is the great fault of symbolic pseudomathematical methods of formalizing a system of economic analysis . . . that they expressly assume strict independence between the factors involved and lose all their cogency and authority if this hypothesis is disallowed; whereas, in ordinary discourse, where we are not blindly manipulating but know all the time what we are doing and what the words mean, we can keep ‘at the back of our heads’ the necessary reserves and qualifications and adjustments which we shall have to make later on, in a way in which we cannot keep complicated partial differentials ‘at the back’ of several pages of algebra which assume they all vanish. Too large a proportion of recent ‘mathematical’ economics are mere concoctions, as imprecise as the initial assumptions they reset on, which allow the author to lose sight of the complexities and interdependencies of the real world in a maze of pretentions and unhelpful symbols.”

Although it would have been helpful if Keynes had specifically identified the pseudomathematical methods that he had in mind, I am inclined to think that he was expressing his impatience with the Walrasian general-equilibrium approach that was characteristic of the Marshallian tradition that he carried forward even as he struggled to transcend it. Walrasian general equilibrium analysis, he seems to be suggesting, is too far removed from reality to provide any reliable guide to macroeconomic policy-making, because the necessary qualifications required to make general-equilibrium analysis practically relevant are simply unmanageable within the framework of general-equilibrium analysis. A different kind of analysis is required. As a Marshallian he was less skeptical of partial-equilibrium analysis than of general-equilibrium analysis. But he also recognized that partial-equilibrium analysis could not be usefully applied in situations, e.g., analysis of an overall “market” for labor, where the usual ceteris paribus assumptions underlying the use of stable demand and supply curves as analytical tools cannot be maintained. But for some reason that didn’t stop Keynes from trying to explain the nominal rate of interest by positing a demand curve to hold money and a fixed stock of money supplied by a central bank. But we all have our blind spots and miss obvious implications of familiar ideas that we have already encountered and, at least partially, understand.

Schwartz concludes his essay with an arresting thought that should give us pause about how we often uncritically accept probabilistic and statistical propositions as if we actually knew how they matched up with the stochastic phenomena that we are seeking to analyze. But although there is a lot to unpack in his conclusion, I am afraid someone more capable than I will have to do the unpacking.

[M]athematics, concentrating our attention, makes us blind to its own omissions – what I have already called the single-mindedness of mathematics. Typically, mathematics, knows better what to do than why to do it. Probability theory is a famous example. . . . Here also, the mathematical formalism may be hiding as much as it reveals.

Stigler Confirms that Wicksteed Did Indeed Discover the Coase Theorem

The world is full of surprises, a fact with which rational-expectations theorists have not yet come to grips. Yesterday I was surprised to find that a post of mine from May 2016, was attracting lots of traffic. When published, that post had not attracted much attention, and I had more or less forgotten about it, but when I quickly went back to look at it, I recalled that I had thought well of it, because in the process of calling attention to Wicksteed’s anticipation of the Coase Theorem, I thought that I had done a good job of demonstrating one of my favorite talking points: that what we think of as microeconomics (supply-demand analysis aka partial-equilibrium analysis) requires a macrofoundation, namely that all markets but the one under analysis are in equilibrium. In particular, Wicksteed showed that to use cost as a determinant of price in the context of partial-equilibrium analysis, one must assume that the prices of everything else have already been determined, because costs don’t exist independently of the prices of all other outputs. But, unfortunately, the post went pretty much unnoticed. Until yesterday.

After noticing all the traffic that an old post was suddenly receiving, I found that the source was Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog, a link to my three-year-old post having been included in a post with five other links. I was curious to see if readers of Tyler’s blog would react to my post, so I checked the comments to his post. Most of them were directed towards the other links that Tyler included, but there were a few that mentioned mine. None of the comments really engaged with my larger point about Wicksteed; most of them focused on my claim that Wicksteed had anticipated the Coase Theorem. Here’s the most pointed comment, by Alan Gunn.

If Wicksteed didn’t mention transaction costs, he didn’t discover the Coase theorem. The importance of transaction costs and the errors economists make when they ignore them are what make Coase’s work important. The stuff about how initial assignment of rights doesn’t matter if transaction costs are zero is obvious and trivial.

A bit later I found that Scott Sumner, whose recent post on Econlib was also linked to by Tyler, added a comment to my post that more gently makes precisely a point exactly opposite of Alan Gunn’s.

Very good post. Some would argue that the essence of the Coase Theorem is not that the initial distribution of property rights doesn’t matter, but rather that it doesn’t matter if there are no transactions costs. I seem to recall that that was Coase’s view.

I agree with Scott that the essential point of the Coase Theorem is that if there are zero transactions costs, the initial allocation doesn’t matter. To credit Wicksteed with anticipating the Coase Theorem, you have to assume that Wicksteed understood that transactions costs had to be zero. But the zero transactions costs assumption was the default assumption. The question is then whether the observation that the final allocation is independent of the initial allocation is a real discovery even if the assumption of zero transactions cost is made only implicitly. Wicksteed obviously did make that assumption, because his result would not have followed if transactions costs were zero. Articulating explicitly an assumption that was assumed implicitly is important, but the substance of the argument is unchanged.

I can’t comment on what Coase’s view of his theorem was, but Stigler clearly did view the Theorem to refer to a situation in which transactions costs were zero. And it was Stigler who attached the name Coase Theorem to Coase’s discovery, and he clearly thought that it was a discovery because the chapter in Stigler’s autobiography Memoirs of an Unregulated Economist in which he recounts the events surrounding the discovery of the Coase Theorem is entitle “Eureka!” (exclamation point is Stigler’s).

The chapter begins as follows:

Scientific discoveries are usually the product of dozens upon dozens tentative explorations, with almost as many blind alleys followed too long. The rare idea that grows into a hypothesis, even more rarely overcomes the difficulties and contradictions it soon encounters. An Archimedes who suddenly has a marvelous idea and shouts “Eureka!” is the hero of the rarest of events. I have spend all of my professional life in the company of first-class scholars but only once have I encountered something like the sudden Archimedian revelation – as an observer. (p. 73)

After recounting the history of the Marshallian doctrine of external economies and its development by Pigou into a deviation between private and social costs, Stigler continues:

The disharmonies between private and social interests produced by external economies and diseconomies became gospel to the economics profession. . . . When, in 1960, Ronald Coase criticized Pigou’s theory rather casually, in the course of a masterly analysis of the Federal Communications Commission’s work, Chicago economists could not understand how so fine an economist as Coase could make so obvious a mistake. Since he persisted [he persisted!], we invited Coase . . . to come and give a talk on it. Some twenty economists from the University of Chicago and Ronald Coase assembled one evening at the home of Aaron Director. Ronald asked us to assume, for a time, a world without transactions costs. That seemed reasonable because economists . . .  are accustomed . . . to deal with simplified . . . “models” and problems. . . .

Ronald asked us to believe . . . [that] whatever the assignment of legal liability for damages, or whatever assignment of legal rights of ownership, the assignments would have no effect upon the way economic resources would be used! We strongly objected to this heresy. Milton Friedman did most of the talking, as usual. He also did much of the thinking, as usual. In the course of two hours of argument the vote went from twenty against and one for Coase to twenty-one for Coase. What an exhilarating event! I lamented afterward that we had not the clairvoyance to tape it (pp. 74-76)

Stigler then summarizes Coase’s argument and proceeds to tell his understanding of the proposition that he called the Coase Theorem.

This proposition, that when there are no transactions costs the assignments of legal rights have no effect upon the allocation of resources among economic enterprises, will, I hope, be reasonable and possibly even obvious once it is explained. Nevertheless there were a fair number of “refutations” published in the economic journals. I christened the proposition the “Coase Theorem” and that is how it is known today. Scientific theories are hardly ever named after their first discoverers . . . so this is a rare example of correct attribution of a priority.

Well, not so much. Coase’s real insight was to see that all economic exchange involves an exchange of rights over resources rather than over the resources themselves. But the insight that the final allocation is independent of the initial allocation was Wicksteed’s.

What’s Wrong with DSGE Models Is Not Representative Agency

The basic DSGE macroeconomic model taught to students is based on a representative agent. Many critics of modern macroeconomics and DSGE models have therefore latched on to the representative agent as the key – and disqualifying — feature in DSGE models, and by extension, with modern macroeconomics. Criticism of representative-agent models is certainly appropriate, because, as Alan Kirman admirably explained some 25 years ago, the simplification inherent in a macoreconomic model based on a representative agent, renders the model entirely inappropriate and unsuitable for most of the problems that a macroeconomic model might be expected to address, like explaining why economies might suffer from aggregate fluctuations in output and employment and the price level.

While altogether fitting and proper, criticism of the representative agent model in macroeconomics had an unfortunate unintended consequence, which was to focus attention on representative agency rather than on the deeper problem with DSGE models, problems that cannot be solved by just throwing the Representative Agent under the bus.

Before explaining why representative agency is not the root problem with DSGE models, let’s take a moment or two to talk about where the idea of representative agency comes from. The idea can be traced back to F. Y. Edgeworth who, in his exposition of the ideas of W. S. Jevons – one of the three marginal revolutionaries of the 1870s – introduced two “representative particulars” to illustrate how trade could maximize the utility of each particular subject to the benchmark utility of the counterparty. That analysis of two different representative particulars, reflected in what is now called the Edgeworth Box, remains one of the outstanding achievements and pedagogical tools of economics. (See a superb account of the historical development of the Box and the many contributions to economic theory that it facilitated by Thomas Humphrey). But Edgeworth’s analysis and its derivatives always focused on the incentives of two representative agents rather than a single isolated representative agent.

Only a few years later, Alfred Marshall in his Principles of Economics, offered an analysis of how the equilibrium price for the product of a competitive industry is determined by the demand for (derived from the marginal utility accruing to consumers from increments of the product) and the supply of that product (derived from the cost of production). The concepts of the marginal cost of an individual firm as a function of quantity produced and the supply of an individual firm as a function of price not yet having been formulated, Marshall, in a kind of hand-waving exercise, introduced a hypothetical representative firm as a stand-in for the entire industry.

The completely ad hoc and artificial concept of a representative firm was not well-received by Marshall’s contemporaries, and the young Lionel Robbins, starting his long career at the London School of Economics, subjected the idea to withering criticism in a 1928 article. Even without Robbins’s criticism, the development of the basic theory of a profit-maximizing firm quickly led to the disappearance of Marshall’s concept from subsequent economics textbooks. James Hartley wrote about the short and unhappy life of Marshall’s Representative Firm in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

One might have thought that the inauspicious career of Marshall’s Representative Firm would have discouraged modern macroeconomists from resurrecting the Representative Firm in the barely disguised form of a Representative Agent in their DSGE models, but the convenience and relative simplicity of solving a DSGE model for a single agent was too enticing to be resisted.

Therein lies the difference between the theory of the firm and a macroeconomic theory. The gain in convenience from adopting the Representative Firm was radically reduced by Marshall’s Cambridge students and successors who, without the representative firm, provided a more rigorous, more satisfying and more flexible exposition of the industry supply curve and the corresponding partial-equilibrium analysis than Marshall had with it. Providing no advantages of realism, logical coherence, analytical versatility or heuristic intuition, the Representative Firm was unceremoniously expelled from the polite company of economists.

However, as a heuristic device for portraying certain properties of an equilibrium state — whose existence is assumed not derived — even a single representative individual or agent proved to be a serviceable device with which to display the defining first-order conditions, the simultaneous equality of marginal rates of substitution in consumption and production with the marginal rate of substitution at market prices. Unlike the Edgeworth Box populated by two representative agents whose different endowments or preference maps result in mutually beneficial trade, the representative agent, even if afforded the opportunity to trade, can find no gain from engaging in it.

An excellent example of this heuristic was provided by Jack Hirshleifer in his 1970 textbook Investment, Interest, and Capital, wherein he adapted the basic Fisherian model of intertemporal consumption, production and exchange opportunities, representing the canonical Fisherian exposition in a single basic diagram. But the representative agent necessarily represents a state of no trade, because, for a single isolated agent, production and consumption must coincide, and the equilibrium price vector must have the property that the representative agent chooses not to trade at that price vector. I reproduce Hirshleifer’s diagram (Figure 4-6) in the attached chart.

Here is how Hirshleifer explained what was going on.

Figure 4-6 illustrates a technique that will be used often from now on: the representative-individual device. If one makes the assumption that all individuals have identical tastes and are identically situated with respect to endowments and productive opportunities, it follows that the individual optimum must be a microcosm of the social equilibrium. In this model the productive and consumptive solutions coincide, as in the Robinson Crusoe case. Nevertheless, market opportunities exist, as indicated by the market line M’M’ through the tangency point P* = C*. But the price reflected in the slope of M’M’ is a sustaining price, such that each individual prefers to hold the combination attained by productive transformations rather than engage in market transactions. The representative-individual device is helpful in suggesting how the equilibrium will respond to changes in exogenous data—the proviso being that such changes od not modify the distribution of wealth among individuals.

While not spelling out the limitations of the representative-individual device, Hirshleifer makes it clear that the representative-agent device is being used as an expository technique to describe, not as an analytical tool to determine, intertemporal equilibrium. The existence of intertemporal equilibrium does not depend on the assumptions necessary to allow a representative individual to serve as a stand-in for all other agents. The representative-individual is portrayed only to provide the student with a special case serving as a visual aid with which to gain an intuitive grasp of the necessary conditions characterizing an intertemporal equilibrium in production and consumption.

But the role of the representative agent in the DSGE model is very different from the representative individual in Hirshleifer’s exposition of the canonical Fisherian theory. In Hirshleifer’s exposition, the representative individual is just a special case and a visual aid with no independent analytical importance. In contrast to Hirshleifer’s deployment of the representative-individual, representative-agent in the DSGE model is used as an assumption whereby an analytical solution to the DSGE model can be derived, allowing the modeler to generate quantitative results to be compared with existing time-series data, to generate forecasts of future economic conditions, and to evaluate the effects of alternative policy rules.

The prominent and dubious role of the representative agent in DSGE models provided a convenient target for critics of DSGE models to direct their criticisms. In Congressional testimony, Robert Solow famously attacked DSGE models and used their reliance on the representative-agents to make them seem, well, simply ridiculous.

Most economists are willing to believe that most individual “agents” – consumers investors, borrowers, lenders, workers, employers – make their decisions so as to do the best that they can for themselves, given their possibilities and their information. Clearly they do not always behave in this rational way, and systematic deviations are well worth studying. But this is not a bad first approximation in many cases. The DSGE school populates its simplified economy – remember that all economics is about simplified economies just as biology is about simplified cells – with exactly one single combination worker-owner-consumer-everything-else who plans ahead carefully and lives forever. One important consequence of this “representative agent” assumption is that there are no conflicts of interest, no incompatible expectations, no deceptions.

This all-purpose decision-maker essentially runs the economy according to its own preferences. Not directly, of course: the economy has to operate through generally well-behaved markets and prices. Under pressure from skeptics and from the need to deal with actual data, DSGE modellers have worked hard to allow for various market frictions and imperfections like rigid prices and wages, asymmetries of information, time lags, and so on. This is all to the good. But the basic story always treats the whole economy as if it were like a person, trying consciously and rationally to do the best it can on behalf of the representative agent, given its circumstances. This cannot be an adequate description of a national economy, which is pretty conspicuously not pursuing a consistent goal. A thoughtful person, faced with the thought that economic policy was being pursued on this basis, might reasonably wonder what planet he or she is on.

An obvious example is that the DSGE story has no real room for unemployment of the kind we see most of the time, and especially now: unemployment that is pure waste. There are competent workers, willing to work at the prevailing wage or even a bit less, but the potential job is stymied by a market failure. The economy is unable to organize a win-win situation that is apparently there for the taking. This sort of outcome is incompatible with the notion that the economy is in rational pursuit of an intelligible goal. The only way that DSGE and related models can cope with unemployment is to make it somehow voluntary, a choice of current leisure or a desire to retain some kind of flexibility for the future or something like that. But this is exactly the sort of explanation that does not pass the smell test.

While Solow’s criticism of the representative agent was correct, he left himself open to an effective rejoinder by defenders of DSGE models who could point out that the representative agent was adopted by DSGE modelers not because it was an essential feature of the DSGE model but because it enabled DSGE modelers to simplify the task of analytically solving for an equilibrium solution. With enough time and computing power, however, DSGE modelers were able to write down models with a few heterogeneous agents (themselves representative of particular kinds of agents in the model) and then crank out an equilibrium solution for those models.

Unfortunately for Solow, V. V. Chari also testified at the same hearing, and he responded directly to Solow, denying that DSGE models necessarily entail the assumption of a representative agent and identifying numerous examples even in 2010 of DSGE models with heterogeneous agents.

What progress have we made in modern macro? State of the art models in, say, 1982, had a representative agent, no role for unemployment, no role for Financial factors, no sticky prices or sticky wages, no role for crises and no role for government. What do modern macroeconomic models look like? The models have all kinds of heterogeneity in behavior and decisions. This heterogeneity arises because people’s objectives dier, they differ by age, by information, by the history of their past experiences. Please look at the seminal work by Rao Aiyagari, Per Krusell and Tony Smith, Tim Kehoe and David Levine, Victor Rios Rull, Nobu Kiyotaki and John Moore. All of them . . . prominent macroeconomists at leading departments . . . much of their work is explicitly about models without representative agents. Any claim that modern macro is dominated by representative-agent models is wrong.

So on the narrow question of whether DSGE models are necessarily members of the representative-agent family, Solow was debunked by Chari. But debunking the claim that DSGE models must be representative-agent models doesn’t mean that DSGE models have the basic property that some of us at least seek in a macro-model: the capacity to explain how and why an economy may deviate from a potential full-employment time path.

Chari actually addressed the charge that DSGE models cannot explain lapses from full employment (to use Pigou’s rather anodyne terminology for depressions). Here is Chari’s response:

In terms of unemployment, the baseline model used in the analysis of labor markets in modern macroeconomics is the Mortensen-Pissarides model. The main point of this model is to focus on the dynamics of unemployment. It is specifically a model in which labor markets are beset with frictions.

Chari’s response was thus to treat lapses from full employment as “frictions.” To treat unemployment as the result of one or more frictions is to take a very narrow view of the potential causes of unemployment. The argument that Keynes made in the General Theory was that unemployment is a systemic failure of a market economy, which lacks an error-correction mechanism that is capable of returning the economy to a full-employment state, at least not within a reasonable period of time.

The basic approach of DSGE is to treat the solution of the model as an optimal solution of a problem. In the representative-agent version of a DSGE model, the optimal solution is optimal solution for a single agent, so optimality is already baked into the model. With heterogeneous agents, the solution of the model is a set of mutually consistent optimal plans, and optimality is baked into that heterogenous-agent DSGE model as well. Sophisticated heterogeneous-agent models can incorporate various frictions and constraints that cause the solution to deviate from a hypothetical frictionless, unconstrained first-best optimum.

The policy message emerging from this modeling approach is that unemployment is attributable to frictions and other distortions that don’t permit a first-best optimum that would be achieved automatically in their absence from being reached. The possibility that the optimal plans of individuals might be incompatible resulting in a systemic breakdown — that there could be a failure to coordinate — does not even come up for discussion.

One needn’t accept Keynes’s own theoretical explanation of unemployment to find the attribution of cyclical unemployment to frictions deeply problematic. But, as I have asserted in many previous posts (e.g., here and here) a modeling approach that excludes a priori any systemic explanation of cyclical unemployment, attributing instead all cyclical unemployment to frictions or inefficient constraints on market pricing, cannot be regarded as anything but an exercise in question begging.

 

My Paper “Hawtrey and Keynes” Is Now Available on SSRN

About five or six years ago, I was invited by Robert Dimand and Harald Hagemann to contribute an article on Hawtrey for The Elgar Companion to John Maynard Keynes, which they edited. I have now posted an early (2014) version of my article on SSRN.

Here is the abstract of my article on Hawtrey and Keynes

R. G. Hawtrey, like his younger contemporary J. M. Keynes, was a Cambridge graduate in mathematics, an Apostle, deeply influenced by the Cambridge philosopher G. E. Moore, attached, if only peripherally, to the Bloomsbury group, and largely an autodidact in economics. Both entered the British Civil Service shortly after graduation, publishing their first books on economics in 1913. Though eventually overshadowed by Keynes, Hawtrey, after publishing Currency and Credit in 1919, was in the front rank of monetary economists in the world and a major figure at the 1922 Genoa International Monetary Conference planning for a restoration of the international gold standard. This essay explores their relationship during the 1920s and 1930s, focusing on their interactions concerning the plans for restoring an international gold standard immediately after World War I, the 1925 decision to restore the convertibility of sterling at the prewar dollar parity, Hawtrey’s articulation of what became known as the Treasury view, Hawtrey’s commentary on Keynes’s Treatise on Money, including his exposition of the multiplier, Keynes’s questioning of Hawtrey after his testimony before the Macmillan Committee, their differences over the relative importance of the short-term and long-term rates of interest as instruments of monetary policy, Hawtrey’s disagreement with Keynes about the causes of the Great Depression, and finally the correspondence between Keynes and Hawtrey while Keynes was writing the General Theory, a correspondence that failed to resolve theoretical differences culminating in Hawtrey’s critical review of the General Theory and their 1937 exchange in the Economic Journal.


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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