The eminent Franklin Fisher, winner of the J. B. Clark Medal in 1973, a famed econometrician and antitrust economist, who was the expert economics witness for IBM in its long battle with the U. S. Department of Justice, and was later the expert witness for the Justice Department in the antitrust case against Microsoft, currently emeritus professor professor of microeconomics at MIT, visited the FTC today to give a talk about proposals the efficient sharing of water between Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. The talk was interesting and informative, but I must admit that I was more interested in Fisher’s views on the stability of general equilibrium, the subject of a monograph he wrote for the econometric society Disequilibrium Foundations of Equilibrium Economics, a book which I have not yet read, but hope to read before very long.
However, I did find a short paper by Fisher, “The Stability of General Equilibrium – What Do We Know and Why Is It Important?” (available here) which was included in a volume General Equilibrium Analysis: A Century after Walras edited by Pacal Bridel.
Fisher’s contribution was to show that the early stability analyses of general equilibrium, despite the efforts of some of the most best economists of the mid-twentieth century, e.g, Hicks, Samuelson, Arrow and Hurwicz (all Nobel Prize winners) failed to provide a useful analysis of the question whether the general equilibrium described by Walras, whose existence was first demonstrated under very restrictive assumptions by Abraham Wald, and later under more general conditions by Arrow and Debreu, is stable or not.
Although we routinely apply comparative-statics exercises to derive what Samuelson mislabeled “meaningful theorems,” meaning refutable propositions about the directional effects of a parameter change on some observable economic variable(s), such as the effect of an excise tax on the price and quantity sold of the taxed commodity, those comparative-statics exercises are predicated on the assumption that the exercise starts from an initial position of equilibrium and that the parameter change leads, in a short period of time, to a new equilibrium. But there is no theory describing the laws of motion leading from one equilibrium to another, so the whole exercise is built on the mere assumption that a general equilibrium is sufficiently stable so that the old and the new equilibria can be usefully compared. In other words, microeconomics is predicated on macroeconomic foundations, i.e., the stability of a general equilibrium. The methodological demand for microfoundations for macroeconomics is thus a massive and transparent exercise in question begging.
In his paper on the stability of general equilibrium, Fisher observes that there are four important issues to be explored by general-equilibrium theory: existence, uniqueness, optimality, and stability. Of these he considers optimality to be the most important, as it provides a justification for a capitalistic market economy. Fisher continues:
So elegant and powerful are these results, that most economists base their conclusions upon them and work in an equilibrium framework – as they do in partial equilibrium analysis. But the justification for so doing depends on the answer to the fourth question listed above, that of stability, and a favorable answer to that is by no means assured.
It is important to understand this point which is generally ignored by economists. No matter how desirable points of competitive general equilibrium may be, that is of no consequence if they cannot be reached fairly quickly or maintained thereafter, or, as might happen when a country decides to adopt free markets, there are bad consequences on the way to equilibrium.
Milton Friedman remarked to me long ago that the study of the stability of general equilibrium is unimportant, first, because it is obvious that the economy is stable, and, second, because if it isn’t stable we are wasting our time. He should have known better. In the first place, it is not at all obvious that the actual economy is stable. Apart from the lessons of the past few years, there is the fact that prices do change all the time. Beyond this, however, is a subtler and possibly more important point. Whether or not the actual economy is stable, we largely lack a convincing theory of why that should be so. Lacking such a theory, we do not have an adequate theory of value, and there is an important lacuna in the center of microeconomic theory.
Yet economists generally behave as though this problem did not exist. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is the view of the theory of Rational Expectations that any disequilibrium disappears so fast that it can be ignored. (If the 50-dollar bill were really on the sidewalk, it would be gone already.) But this simply assumes the problem away. The pursuit of profits is a major dynamic force in the competitive economy. To only look at situations where the Invisible Hand has finished its work cannot lead to a real understanding of how that work is accomplished. (p. 35)
I would also note that Fisher confirms a proposition that I have advanced a couple of times previously, namely that Walras’s Law is not generally valid except in a full general equilibrium with either a complete set of markets or correct price expectations. Outside of general equilibrium, Walras’s Law is valid only if trading is not permitted at disequilibrium prices, i.e., Walrasian tatonnement. Here’s how Fisher puts it.
In this context, it is appropriate to remark that Walras’s Law no longer holds in its original form. Instead of the sum of the money value of all excess demands over all agents being zero, it now turned out that, at any moment of time, the same sum (including the demands for shares of firms and for money) equals the difference between the total amount of dividends that households expect to receive at that time and the amount that firms expect to pay. This difference disappears in equilibrium where expectations are correct, and the classic version of Walras’s Law then holds.