Sunday, July 29, will be the second anniversary of the sudden passing of Earl Thompson, one of the truly original and creative minds that the economics profession has ever produced. For some personal recollections of Earl, see the webpage devoted to him on the UCLA website, where a list of his publications and working papers, most of which are downloadable, is available. Some appreciations and recollections of Earl are available on the web (e.g, from Tyler Cowen, Scott Sumner, Josh Wright, and Thomas Lifson). I attach a picture of Earl taken by a department secretary, Lorraine Grams, in 1974, when Earl was about 35 years old.
I first met Earl when I was an undergraduate at UCLA in the late 1960s, his reputation for brilliant, inconclastic, eccentricity already well established. My interactions with Earl as undergraduate were minimal, his other reputation as a disorganized and difficult-to-follow lecturer having deterred me, as a callow sophomore, from enrolling in his intermediate micro class. Subsequently as a first-year graduate student, I had the choice of taking either Axel Leijonhufvud’s macro-theory sequence or Earl’s. Having enjoyed Axel’s intermediate macro course, I never even considered not taking the graduate sequence from Axel, who had just achieved academic stardom with the publication of his wonderful book On Keynesian Economics and the Economics of Keynes. However, little by little over the years, I had started reading some of Earl’s papers on money, especially an early version of his paper “The Theory of Money and Income Consistent with Orthodox Value Theory,” which, containing an explicit model of a competitive supply of money, a notion that I had been exposed to when taking Ben Klein’s undergraduate money and banking course and his graduate monetary theory course, became enormously influential on my own thinking, providing the foundation for my paper, “A Reinterpretation of Classical Monetary Theory” and for much of my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, and most of my subsequent work in monetary economics. So as a second-year grad student, I decided to attend Earl’s weekly 3-hour graduate macro theory lecture. Actually I think at least half of us in the class may have been there just to listen to Earl, not to take the class for credit. Despite his reputation as a disorganized and hard to follow lecturer, each lecture, which was just Earl at the blackboard with a piece of chalk drawing various supply and demand curves, and occasionally something more complicated, plus some math notation, but hardly ever any complicated math or formal proofs, and just explaining the basic economic intuition of whatever concept he was discussing. By this time he had already worked out just about all of the concepts, and he was not just making it up as he was going along, which he could also do when confronted with a question about something he hadn’t yet thought through. But by then, Earl had thought through the elements of his monetary theory so thoroughly and for so long, that everything just fit into place beautifully. And when you challenged him about some point, he almost always had already anticipated your objection and proceeded to explain why your objection wasn’t a problem or even supported his own position.
I didn’t take detailed notes of his lectures, preferring just to try to understand how Earl was thinking about the topics that he was discussing, so I don’t have a clear memory of the overall course outline. However his paper “A Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory,” of which he had just produced an early draft, provides the outline of what he was covering. He started with a discussion of general equilibrium and its meaning, using Hicksian temporary equilibrium as his theoretical framework. Perhaps without realizing it, he developed many of the ideas in Hayek’s Economics and Knowledge paper, which may, in turn, have influenced Hicks, who was for a short time Hayek’s student and colleague at LSE — in particular the idea that intertemporal equilibrium means consistency of plans so that economic agents are able to execute their plans as intended and therefore do not regret their decisions ex post. From there I think he developed a search-theoretic explanation of involuntary unemployment in which mistaken worker expectations of wages, resulting from an inability to distinguish between sector-specific and economy-wide shocks, causes labor-supply curves to be highly elastic at the currently expected wage, implying large fluctuations in employment, in response to economy-wide shocks, rather than rapid adjustments in nominal wages . With this theoretical background, Earl constructed a simple aggregative model as an alternative to the Keynesian model, the difference being that Earl dispensed with the Keynesian expenditure functions and the savings equals investment equilibrium condition, replacing them with a capital-market equilibrium condition derived from neo-classical production theory — an inspired modeling choice.
Thus, in one fell swoop, Earl created a model fully consistent with individual optimizing behavior, market equilibrium and Keynesian unemployment. Doing so involved replacing the traditional downward-sloping IS curve with an upward-sloping, factor-market equilibrium curve. At this point, the model could be closed either with a traditional LM curve corresponding to an exogenously produced money supply or with a vertical LM curve associated with a competitively produced money supply. That discussion in turn led to a deep excursion into the foundations of monetary theory, the historical gold standard, fiat money, and a comparison of the static and dynamic efficiency of alternative monetary institutions, combined with a historical perspective on the Great Depression, and the evolution of modern monetary institutions. It was a terrific intellectual tour de force, and a highlight of my graduate training at UCLA.
Unfortunately, “A Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory” has never been published, though a revised version of the paper (dated 1977) is available on Earl’s webpage. The paper is difficult to read, at least for me, because Earl was much too terse in his exposition – many propositions are just stated with insufficient motivation or explanation — with readers often left scratching their heads about the justification for what they have read or why they should care. So over the next week or so, I am going to write a series of posts summarizing the main points of the paper, and discussing why I think the argument is important, problems I have with his argument or ways in which the argument needs further elaboration or what not. I hope the discussions will lead people to read the original paper, as well as Earl’s other papers.