Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I have been writing less about monetary policy and more about theory and methodology than when I started blogging a little over three years ago. Now one reason for that is that I’ve already said what I want to say about policy, and, since I get bored easily, I look for new things to write about. Another reason is that, at least in the US, the economy seems to have reached a sustainable growth path that seems likely to continue for the near to intermediate term. I think that monetary policy could be doing more to promote recovery, and I wish that it would, but unfortunately, the policy is what it is, and it will continue more or less in the way that Janet Yellen has been saying it will. Falling oil prices, because of increasing US oil output, suggest that growth may speed up slightly even as inflation stays low, possibly even falling to one percent or less. At least in the short-term, the fall in inflation does not seem like a cause for concern. A third reason for writing less about monetary policy is that I have been giving a lot of thought to what it is that I dislike about the current state of macroeconomics, and as I have been thinking about it, I have been writing about it.
In thinking about what I think is wrong with modern macroeconomics, I have been coming back again and again, though usually without explicit attribution, to an idea that was impressed upon me as an undergrad and grad student by Axel Leijonhufvud: that the main concern of macroeconomics ought to be with failures of coordination. A Swede, trained in the tradition of the Wicksellian Stockholm School, Leijonhufvud immersed himself in the study of the economics of Keynes and Keynesian economics, while also mastering the Austrian literature, and becoming an admirer of Hayek, especially Hayek’s seminal 1937 paper, “Economics and Knowledge.”
In discussing Keynes, Leijonhufvud focused on two kinds of coordination failures.
First, there is a problem in the labor market. If there is unemployment because the real wage is too high, an individual worker can’t solve the problem by offering to accept a reduced nominal wage. Suppose the price of output is $1 a unit and the wage is $10 a day, but the real wage consistent with full employment is $9 a day, meaning that producers choose to produce less output than they would produce if the real wage were lower, thus hiring fewer workers than they would if the real wage were lower than it is. If an individual worker offers to accept a wage of $9 a day, but other workers continue to hold out for $10 a day, it’s not clear that an employer would want to hire the worker who offers to work for $9 a day. If employers are not hiring additional workers because they can’t cover the cost of the additional output produced with the incremental revenue generated by the added output, the willingness of one worker to work for $9 a day is not likely to make a difference to the employer’s output and hiring decisions. It is not obvious what sequence of transactions would result in an increase in output and employment when the real wage is above the equilibrium level. There are complex feedback effects from a change, so that the net effect of making those changes in a piecemeal fashion is unpredictable, even though there is a possible full-employment equilibrium with a real wage of $9 a day. If the problem is that real wages in general are too high for full employment, the willingness of an individual worker to accept a reduced wage from a single employer does not fix the problem.
In the standard competitive model, there is a perfect market for every commodity in which every transactor is assumed to be able to buy and sell as much as he wants. But the standard competitive model has very little to say about the process by which those equilibrium prices are arrived at. And a typical worker is never faced with that kind of choice posited in the competitive model: an impersonal uniform wage at which he can decide how many hours a day or week or year he wants to work at that uniform wage. Under those circumstances, Keynes argued that the willingness of some workers to accept wage cuts in order to gain employment would not significantly increase employment, and might actually have destabilizing side-effects. Keynes tried to make this argument in the framework of an equilibrium model, though the nature of the argument, as Don Patinkin among others observed, was really better suited to a disequilibrium framework. Unfortunately, Keynes’s argument was subsequently dumbed down to a simple assertion that wages and prices are sticky (especially downward).
Second, there is an intertemporal problem, because the interest rate may be stuck at a rate too high to allow enough current investment to generate the full-employment level of spending given the current level of the money wage. In this scenario, unemployment isn’t caused by a real wage that is too high, so trying to fix it by wage adjustment would be a mistake. Since the source of the problem is the rate of interest, the way to fix the problem would be to reduce the rate of interest. But depending on the circumstances, there may be a coordination failure: bear speculators, expecting the rate of interest to rise when it falls to abnormally low levels, prevent the rate of interest from falling enough to induce enough investment to support full employment. Keynes put too much weight on bear speculators as the source of the intertemporal problem; Hawtrey’s notion of a credit deadlock would actually have been a better way to go, and nowadays, when people speak about a Keynesian liquidity trap, what they really have in mind is something closer to Hawtreyan credit deadlock than to the Keynesian liquidity trap.
Keynes surely deserves credit for identifying and explaining two possible sources of coordination failures, failures affecting the macroeconomy, because interest rates and wages, though they actually come in many different shapes and sizes, affect all markets and are true macroeconomic variables. But Keynes’s analysis of those coordination failures was far from being fully satisfactory, which is not surprising; a theoretical pioneer rarely provides a fully satisfactory analysis, leaving lots of work for successors.
But I think that Keynes’s theoretical paradigm actually did lead macroeconomics in the wrong direction, in the direction of a highly aggregated model with a single output, a bond, a medium of exchange, and a labor market, with no explicit characterization of the production technology. (I.e., is there one factor or two, and if two how is the price of the second factor determined? See, here, here, here, and here my discussion of Earl Thompson’s “A Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory,” which I hope at some point to revisit and continue.)
Why was it the wrong direction? Because, the Keynesian model (both Keynes’s own version and the Hicksian IS-LM version of his model) ruled out the sort of coordination problems that might arise in a multi-product, multi-factor, intertemporal model in which total output depends in a meaningful way on the meshing of the interdependent plans, independently formulated by decentralized decision-makers, contingent on possibly inconsistent expectations of the future. In the over-simplified and over-aggregated Keynesian model, the essence of the coordination problem has been assumed away, leaving only a residue of the actual problem to be addressed by the model. The focus of the model is on aggregate expenditure, income, and output flows, with no attention paid to the truly daunting task of achieving sufficient coordination among the independent decision makers to allow total output and income to closely approximate the maximum sustainable output and income that the system could generate in a perfectly coordinated state, aka full intertemporal equilibrium.
This way of thinking about macroeconomics led to the merging of macroeconomics with neoclassical growth theory and to the routine and unthinking incorporation of aggregate production functions in macroeconomic models, a practice that is strictly justified only in a single-output, two-factor model in which the value of capital is independent of the rate of interest, so that the havoc-producing effects of reswitching and capital-reversal can be avoided. Eventually, these models were taken over by modern real-business-cycle theorists, who dogmatically rule out any consideration of coordination problems, while attributing all observed output and employment fluctuations to random productivity shocks. If one thinks of macroeconomics as an attempt to understand coordination failures, the RBC explanation of output and employment fluctuations is totally backwards; productivity fluctuations, like fluctuations in output and employment, are the not the results of unexplained random disturbances, they are the symptoms of coordination failures. That’s it, eureka! Solve the problem by assuming that it does not exist.
If you are thinking that this seems like an Austrian critique of the Keynesian model or the Keynesian approach, you are right; it is an Austrian critique. But it has nothing to do with stereotypical Austrian policy negativism; it is a critique of the oversimplified structure of the Keynesian model, which foreshadowed the reduction ad absurdum or modern real-business-cycle theory, which has nearly banished the idea of coordination failures from modern macroeconomics. The critique is not about the lack of a roundabout capital structure; it is about the narrow scope for inconsistencies in production and consumption plans.
I think that Leijonhufvud almost 40 years ago was getting at this point when he wrote the following paragraph near toward end of his book on Keynes.
The unclear mix of statics and dynamics [in the General Theory] would seem to be main reason for later muddles. One cannot assume that what went wrong was simply that Keynes slipped up here and there in his adaptation of standard tools, and that consequently, if we go back and tinker a little more with the Marshallian toolbox his purposes will be realized. What is required, I believe, is a systematic investigation from the standpoint of the information problems stressed in this study, of what elements of the static theory of resource allocation can without further ado be utilized in the analysis of dynamic and historical systems. This, of course, would be merely a first step: the gap yawns very wide between the systematic and rigorous modern analysis of the stability of simple, “featureless,” pure exchange systems and Keynes’ inspired sketch of the income-constrained process in a monetary exchange-cum production system. But even for such a first step, the prescription cannot be to “go back to Keynes.” If one must retrace some step of past developments in order to get on the right track – and that is probably advisable – my own preference is to go back to Hayek. Hayek’s Gestalt-conception of what happens during business cycles, it has been generally agreed, was much less sound that Keynes’. As an unhappy consequence, his far superior work on the fundamentals of the problem has not received the attention it deserves. (pp. 401-02)
I don’t think that we actually need to go back to Hayek, though “Economics and Knowledge” should certainly be read by every macroeconomist, but we do need to get a clearer understanding of the potential for breakdowns in economic activity to be caused by inconsistent expectations, especially when expectations are themselves mutually dependent and reinforcing. Because expectations are mutually interdependent, they are highly susceptible to network effects. Network effects produce tipping points, tipping points can lead to catastrophic outcomes. Just wanted to share that with you. Have a nice day.