Lucas and Sargent on Optimization and Equilibrium in Macroeconomics

In a famous contribution to a conference sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Robert Lucas and Thomas Sargent (1978) harshly attacked Keynes and Keynesian macroeconomics for shortcomings both theoretical and econometric. The econometric criticisms, drawing on the famous Lucas Critique (Lucas 1976), were focused on technical identification issues and on the dependence of estimated regression coefficients of econometric models on agents’ expectations conditional on the macroeconomic policies actually in effect, rendering those econometric models an unreliable basis for policymaking. But Lucas and Sargent reserved their harshest criticism for abandoning what they called the classical postulates.

Economists prior to the 1930s did not recognize a need for a special branch of economics, with its own special postulates, designed to explain the business cycle. Keynes founded that subdiscipline, called macroeconomics, because he thought that it was impossible to explain the characteristics of business cycles within the discipline imposed by classical economic theory, a discipline imposed by its insistence on . . . two postulates (a) that markets . . . clear, and (b) that agents . . . act in their own self-interest [optimize]. The outstanding fact that seemed impossible to reconcile with these two postulates was the length and severity of business depressions and the large scale unemployment which they entailed. . . . After freeing himself of the straight-jacket (or discipline) imposed by the classical postulates, Keynes described a model in which rules of thumb, such as the consumption function and liquidity preference schedule, took the place of decision functions that a classical economist would insist be derived from the theory of choice. And rather than require that wages and prices be determined by the postulate that markets clear — which for the labor market seemed patently contradicted by the severity of business depressions — Keynes took as an unexamined postulate that money wages are “sticky,” meaning that they are set at a level or by a process that could be taken as uninfluenced by the macroeconomic forces he proposed to analyze[1]. . . .

In recent years, the meaning of the term “equilibrium” has undergone such dramatic development that a theorist of the 1930s would not recognize it. It is now routine to describe an economy following a multivariate stochastic process as being “in equilibrium,” by which is meant nothing more than that at each point in time, postulates (a) and (b) above are satisfied. This development, which stemmed mainly from work by K. J. Arrow and G. Debreu, implies that simply to look at any economic time series and conclude that it is a “disequilibrium phenomenon” is a meaningless observation. Indeed, a more likely conjecture, on the basis of recent work by Hugo Sonnenschein, is that the general hypothesis that a collection of time series describes an economy in competitive equilibrium is without content. (pp. 58-59)

Lucas and Sargent maintain that ‘classical” (by which they obviously mean “neoclassical”) economics is based on the twin postulates of (a) market clearing and (b) optimization. But optimization is a postulate about individual conduct or decision making under ideal conditions in which individuals can choose costlessly among alternatives that they can rank. Market clearing is not a postulate about individuals, it is the outcome of a process that neoclassical theory did not, and has not, described in any detail.

Instead of describing the process by which markets clear, neoclassical economic theory provides a set of not too realistic stories about how markets might clear, of which the two best-known stories are the Walrasian auctioneer/tâtonnement story, widely regarded as merely heuristic, if not fantastical, and the clearly heuristic and not-well-developed Marshallian partial-equilibrium story of a “long-run” equilibrium price for each good correctly anticipated by market participants corresponding to the long-run cost of production. However, the cost of production on which the Marhsallian long-run equilibrium price depends itself presumes that a general equilibrium of all other input and output prices has been reached, so it is not an alternative to, but must be subsumed under, the Walrasian general equilibrium paradigm.

Thus, in invoking the neoclassical postulates of market-clearing and optimization, Lucas and Sargent unwittingly, or perhaps wittingly, begged the question how market clearing, which requires that the plans of individual optimizing agents to buy and sell reconciled in such a way that each agent can carry out his/her/their plan as intended, comes about. Rather than explain how market clearing is achieved, they simply assert – and rather loudly – that we must postulate that market clearing is achieved, and thereby submit to the virtuous discipline of equilibrium.

Because they could provide neither empirical evidence that equilibrium is continuously achieved nor a plausible explanation of the process whereby it might, or could be, achieved, Lucas and Sargent try to normalize their insistence that equilibrium is an obligatory postulate that must be accepted by economists by calling it “routine to describe an economy following a multivariate stochastic process as being ‘in equilibrium,’ by which is meant nothing more than that at each point in time, postulates (a) and (b) above are satisfied,” as if the routine adoption of any theoretical or methodological assumption becomes ipso facto justified once adopted routinely. That justification was unacceptable to Lucas and Sargent when made on behalf of “sticky wages” or Keynesian “rules of thumb, but somehow became compelling when invoked on behalf of perpetual “equilibrium” and neoclassical discipline.

Using the authority of Arrow and Debreu to support the normalcy of the assumption that equilibrium is a necessary and continuous property of reality, Lucas and Sargent maintained that it is “meaningless” to conclude that any economic time series is a disequilibrium phenomenon. A proposition ismeaningless if and only if neither the proposition nor its negation is true. So, in effect, Lucas and Sargent are asserting that it is nonsensical to say that an economic time either reflects or does not reflect an equilibrium, but that it is, nevertheless, methodologically obligatory to for any economic model to make that nonsensical assumption.

It is curious that, in making such an outlandish claim, Lucas and Sargent would seek to invoke the authority of Arrow and Debreu. Leave aside the fact that Arrow (1959) himself identified the lack of a theory of disequilibrium pricing as an explanatory gap in neoclassical general-equilibrium theory. But if equilibrium is a necessary and continuous property of reality, why did Arrow and Debreu, not to mention Wald and McKenzie, devoted so much time and prodigious intellectual effort to proving that an equilibrium solution to a system of equations exists. If, as Lucas and Sargent assert (nonsensically), it makes no sense to entertain the possibility that an economy is, or could be, in a disequilibrium state, why did Wald, Arrow, Debreu and McKenzie bother to prove that the only possible state of the world actually exists?

Having invoked the authority of Arrow and Debreu, Lucas and Sargent next invoke the seminal contribution of Sonnenschein (1973), though without mentioning the similar and almost simultaneous contributions of Mantel (1974) and Debreu (1974), to argue that it is empirically empty to argue that any collection of economic time series is either in equilibrium or out of equilibrium. This property has subsequently been described as an “Anything Goes Theorem” (Mas-Colell, Whinston, and Green, 1995).

Presumably, Lucas and Sargent believe the empirically empty hypothesis that a collection of economic time series is, or, alternatively is not, in equilibrium is an argument supporting the methodological imperative of maintaining the assumption that the economy absolutely and necessarily is in a continuous state of equilibrium. But what Sonnenschein (and Mantel and Debreu) showed was that even if the excess demands of all individual agents are continuous, are homogeneous of degree zero, and even if Walras’s Law is satisfied, aggregating the excess demands of all agents would not necessarily cause the aggregate excess demand functions to behave in such a way that a unique or a stable equilibrium. But if we have no good argument to explain why a unique or at least a stable neoclassical general-economic equilibrium exists, on what methodological ground is it possible to insist that no deviation from the admittedly empirically empty and meaningless postulate of necessary and continuous equilibrium may be tolerated by conscientious economic theorists? Or that the gatekeepers of reputable neoclassical economics must enforce appropriate standards of professional practice?

As Franklin Fisher (1989) showed, inability to prove that there is a stable equilibrium leaves neoclassical economics unmoored, because the bread and butter of neoclassical price theory (microeconomics), comparative statics exercises, is conditional on the assumption that there is at least one stable general equilibrium solution for a competitive economy.

But it’s not correct to say that general equilibrium theory in its Arrow-Debreu-McKenzie version is empirically empty. Indeed, it has some very strong implications. There is no money, no banks, no stock market, and no missing markets; there is no advertising, no unsold inventories, no search, no private information, and no price discrimination. There are no surprises and there are no regrets, no mistakes and no learning. I could go on, but you get the idea. As a theory of reality, the ADM general-equilibrium model is simply preposterous. And, yet, this is the model of economic reality on the basis of which Lucas and Sargent proposed to build a useful and relevant theory of macroeconomic fluctuations. OMG!

Lucas, in various writings, has actually disclaimed any interest in providing an explanation of reality, insisting that his only aim is to devise mathematical models capable of accounting for the observed values of the relevant time series of macroeconomic variables. In Lucas’s conception of science, the only criterion for scientific knowledge is the capacity of a theory – an algorithm for generating numerical values to be measured against observed time series – to generate predicted values approximating the observed values of the time series. The only constraint on the algorithm is Lucas’s methodological preference that the algorithm be derived from what he conceives to be an acceptable microfounded version of neoclassical theory: a set of predictions corresponding to the solution of a dynamic optimization problem for a “representative agent.”

In advancing his conception of the role of science, Lucas has reverted to the approach of ancient astronomers who, for methodological reasons of their own, believed that the celestial bodies revolved around the earth in circular orbits. To ensure that their predictions matched the time series of the observed celestial positions of the planets, ancient astronomers, following Ptolemy, relied on epicycles or second-order circular movements of planets while traversing their circular orbits around the earth to account for their observed motions.

Kepler and later Galileo conceived of the solar system in a radically different way from the ancients, placing the sun, not the earth, at the fixed center of the solar system and proposing that the orbits of the planets were elliptical, not circular. For a long time, however, the actual time series of geocentric predictions outperformed the new heliocentric predictions. But even before the heliocentric predictions started to outperform the geocentric predictions, the greater simplicity and greater realism of the heliocentric theory attracted an increasing number of followers, forcing methodological supporters of the geocentric theory to take active measures to suppress the heliocentric theory.

I hold no particular attachment to the pre-Lucasian versions of macroeconomic theory, whether Keynesian, Monetarist, or heterodox. Macroeconomic theory required a grounding in an explicit intertemporal setting that had been lacking in most earlier theories. But the ruthless enforcement, based on a preposterous methodological imperative, lacking scientific or philosophical justification, of formal intertemporal optimization models as the only acceptable form of macroeconomic theorizing has sidetracked macroeconomics from a more relevant inquiry into the nature and causes of intertemporal coordination failures that Keynes, along with many some of his predecessors and contemporaries, had initiated.

Just as the dispute about whether planetary motion is geocentric or heliocentric was a dispute about what the world is like, not just about the capacity of models to generate accurate predictions of time series variables, current macroeconomic disputes are real disputes about what the world is like and whether aggregate economic fluctuations are the result of optimizing equilibrium choices by economic agents or about coordination failures that cause economic agents to be surprised and disappointed and rendered unable to carry out their plans in the manner in which they had hoped and expected to be able to do. It’s long past time for this dispute about reality to be joined openly with the seriousness that it deserves, instead of being suppressed by a spurious pseudo-scientific methodology.

HT: Arash Molavi Vasséi, Brian Albrecht, and Chris Edmonds


[1] Lucas and Sargent are guilty of at least two misrepresentations in this paragraph. First, Keynes did not “found” macroeconomics, though he certainly influenced its development decisively. Keynes used the term “macroeconomics,” and his work, though crucial, explicitly drew upon earlier work by Marshall, Wicksell, Fisher, Pigou, Hawtrey, and Robertson, among others. See Laidler (1999). Second, having explicitly denied and argued at length that his results did not depend on the assumption of sticky wages, Keynes certainly never introduced the assumption of sticky wages himself. See Leijonhufvud (1968)

3 Responses to “Lucas and Sargent on Optimization and Equilibrium in Macroeconomics”


  1. 1 philipji July 31, 2022 at 9:31 pm

    “But what Sonnenschein (and Mantel and Debreu) showed was that even if the excess demands of all individual agents are continuous, are homogeneous of degree one,…”
    Should it be homogeneous of degree zero?

    Like

  2. 2 David Glasner July 31, 2022 at 9:32 pm

    Yes, of course. Thanks for catching that

    Like

  3. 3 Henry Rech August 1, 2022 at 3:43 pm

    David,

    Great to see you get all het up over a subject.

    Lucas’ insistence on the pure neoclassical theory as a basis for macroeconomics, I would say, is energized by his ideology – the idolatory of the market.

    It seems that Lucas fell out with his one time colleague, Rapping, over the Vietnam war. Lucas clearly has strong ideological predilections.

    And for Lucas to say that Keynes’ theory revolved around sticky wages indicates he never read the GT.

    Like


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.




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.

My new book Studies in the History of Monetary Theory: Controversies and Clarifications has been published by Palgrave Macmillan

Follow me on Twitter @david_glasner

Archives

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 3,236 other followers
Follow Uneasy Money on WordPress.com

%d bloggers like this: