A couple of days ago Paul Krugman discussed “Second-best Macroeconomics” on his blog. I have no real quarrel with anything he said, but I would like to amplify his discussion of what is sometimes called the problem of second-best, because I think the problem of second best has some really important implications for macroeconomics beyond the limited application of the problem that Krugman addressed. The basic idea underlying the problem of second best is not that complicated, but it has many applications, and what made the 1956 paper (“The General Theory of Second Best”) by R. G. Lipsey and Kelvin Lancaster a classic was that it showed how a number of seemingly disparate problems were really all applications of a single unifying principle. Here’s how Krugman frames his application of the second-best problem.
[T]he whole western world has spent years suffering from a severe shortfall of aggregate demand; in Europe a severe misalignment of national costs and prices has been overlaid on this aggregate problem. These aren’t hard problems to diagnose, and simple macroeconomic models — which have worked very well, although nobody believes it — tell us how to solve them. Conventional monetary policy is unavailable thanks to the zero lower bound, but fiscal policy is still on tap, as is the possibility of raising the inflation target. As for misaligned costs, that’s where exchange rate adjustments come in. So no worries: just hit the big macroeconomic That Was Easy button, and soon the troubles will be over.
Except that all the natural answers to our problems have been ruled out politically. Austerians not only block the use of fiscal policy, they drive it in the wrong direction; a rise in the inflation target is impossible given both central-banker prejudices and the power of the goldbug right. Exchange rate adjustment is blocked by the disappearance of European national currencies, plus extreme fear over technical difficulties in reintroducing them.
As a result, we’re stuck with highly problematic second-best policies like quantitative easing and internal devaluation.
I might quibble with Krugman about the quality of the available macroeconomic models, by which I am less impressed than he, but that’s really beside the point of this post, so I won’t even go there. But I can’t let the comment about the inflation target pass without observing that it’s not just “central-banker prejudices” and the “goldbug right” that are to blame for the failure to raise the inflation target; for reasons that I don’t claim to understand myself, the political consensus in both Europe and the US in favor of perpetually low or zero inflation has been supported with scarcely any less fervor by the left than the right. It’s only some eccentric economists – from diverse positions on the political spectrum – that have been making the case for inflation as a recovery strategy. So the political failure has been uniform across the political spectrum.
OK, having registered my factual disagreement with Krugman about the source of our anti-inflationary intransigence, I can now get to the main point. Here’s Krugman:
“[S]econd best” is an economic term of art. It comes from a classic 1956 paper by Lipsey and Lancaster, which showed that policies which might seem to distort markets may nonetheless help the economy if markets are already distorted by other factors. For example, suppose that a developing country’s poorly functioning capital markets are failing to channel savings into manufacturing, even though it’s a highly profitable sector. Then tariffs that protect manufacturing from foreign competition, raise profits, and therefore make more investment possible can improve economic welfare.
The problems with second best as a policy rationale are familiar. For one thing, it’s always better to address existing distortions directly, if you can — second best policies generally have undesirable side effects (e.g., protecting manufacturing from foreign competition discourages consumption of industrial goods, may reduce effective domestic competition, and so on). . . .
But here we are, with anything resembling first-best macroeconomic policy ruled out by political prejudice, and the distortions we’re trying to correct are huge — one global depression can ruin your whole day. So we have quantitative easing, which is of uncertain effectiveness, probably distorts financial markets at least a bit, and gets trashed all the time by people stressing its real or presumed faults; someone like me is then put in the position of having to defend a policy I would never have chosen if there seemed to be a viable alternative.
In a deep sense, I think the same thing is involved in trying to come up with less terrible policies in the euro area. The deal that Greece and its creditors should have reached — large-scale debt relief, primary surpluses kept small and not ramped up over time — is a far cry from what Greece should and probably would have done if it still had the drachma: big devaluation now. The only way to defend the kind of thing that was actually on the table was as the least-worst option given that the right response was ruled out.
That’s one example of a second-best problem, but it’s only one of a variety of problems, and not, it seems to me, the most macroeconomically interesting. So here’s the second-best problem that I want to discuss: given one distortion (i.e., a departure from one of the conditions for Pareto-optimality), reaching a second-best sub-optimum requires violating other – likely all the other – conditions for reaching the first-best (Pareto) optimum. The strategy for getting to the second-best suboptimum cannot be to achieve as many of the conditions for reaching the first-best optimum as possible; the conditions for reaching the second-best optimum are in general totally different from the conditions for reaching the first-best optimum.
So what’s the deeper macroeconomic significance of the second-best principle?
I would put it this way. Suppose there’s a pre-existing macroeconomic equilibrium, all necessary optimality conditions between marginal rates of substitution in production and consumption and relative prices being satisfied. Let the initial equilibrium be subjected to a macoreconomic disturbance. The disturbance will immediately affect a range — possibly all — of the individual markets, and all optimality conditions will change, so that no market will be unaffected when a new optimum is realized. But while optimality for the system as a whole requires that prices adjust in such a way that the optimality conditions are satisfied in all markets simultaneously, each price adjustment that actually occurs is a response to the conditions in a single market – the relationship between amounts demanded and supplied at the existing price. Each price adjustment being a response to a supply-demand imbalance in an individual market, there is no theory to explain how a process of price adjustment in real time will ever restore an equilibrium in which all optimality conditions are simultaneously satisfied.
Invoking a general Smithian invisible-hand theorem won’t work, because, in this context, the invisible-hand theorem tells us only that if an equilibrium price vector were reached, the system would be in an optimal state of rest with no tendency to change. The invisible-hand theorem provides no account of how the equilibrium price vector is discovered by any price-adjustment process in real time. (And even tatonnement, a non-real-time process, is not guaranteed to work as shown by the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu Theorem). With price adjustment in each market entirely governed by the demand-supply imbalance in that market, market prices determined in individual markets need not ensure that all markets clear simultaneously or satisfy the optimality conditions.
Now it’s true that we have a simple theory of price adjustment for single markets: prices rise if there’s an excess demand and fall if there’s an excess supply. If demand and supply curves have normal slopes, the simple price adjustment rule moves the price toward equilibrium. But that partial-equilibriuim story is contingent on the implicit assumption that all other markets are in equilibrium. When all markets are in disequilibrium, moving toward equilibrium in one market will have repercussions on other markets, and the simple story of how price adjustment in response to a disequilibrium restores equilibrium breaks down, because market conditions in every market depend on market conditions in every other market. So unless all markets arrive at equilibrium simultaneously, there’s no guarantee that equilibrium will obtain in any of the markets. Disequilibrium in any market can mean disequilibrium in every market. And if a single market is out of kilter, the second-best, suboptimal solution for the system is totally different from the first-best solution for all markets.
In the standard microeconomics we are taught in econ 1 and econ 101, all these complications are assumed away by restricting the analysis of price adjustment to a single market. In other words, as I have pointed out in a number of previous posts (here and here), standard microeconomics is built on macroeconomic foundations, and the currently fashionable demand for macroeconomics to be microfounded turns out to be based on question-begging circular reasoning. Partial equilibrium is a wonderful pedagogical device, and it is an essential tool in applied microeconomics, but its limitations are often misunderstood or ignored.
An early macroeconomic application of the theory of second is the statement by the quintessentially orthodox pre-Keynesian Cambridge economist Frederick Lavington who wrote in his book The Trade Cycle “the inactivity of all is the cause of the inactivity of each.” Each successive departure from the conditions for second-, third-, fourth-, and eventually nth-best sub-optima has additional negative feedback effects on the rest of the economy, moving it further and further away from a Pareto-optimal equilibrium with maximum output and full employment. The fewer people that are employed, the more difficult it becomes for anyone to find employment.
This insight was actually admirably, if inexactly, expressed by Say’s Law: supply creates its own demand. The cause of the cumulative contraction of output in a depression is not, as was often suggested, that too much output had been produced, but a breakdown of coordination in which disequilibrium spreads in epidemic fashion from market to market, leaving individual transactors unable to compensate by altering the terms on which they are prepared to supply goods and services. The idea that a partial-equilibrium response, a fall in money wages, can by itself remedy a general-disequilibrium disorder is untenable. Keynes and the Keynesians were therefore completely wrong to accuse Say of committing a fallacy in diagnosing the cause of depressions. The only fallacy lay in the assumption that market adjustments would automatically ensure the restoration of something resembling full-employment equilibrium.