Archive for the 'representative agent' Category

An Austrian Tragedy

It was hardly predictable that the New York Review of Books would take notice of Marginal Revolutionaries by Janek Wasserman, marking the susquicentenial of the publication of Carl Menger’s Grundsätze (Principles of Economics) which, along with Jevons’s Principles of Political Economy and Walras’s Elements of Pure Economics ushered in the marginal revolution upon which all of modern economics, for better or for worse, is based. The differences among the three founding fathers of modern economic theory were not insubstantial, and the Jevonian version was largely superseded by the work of his younger contemporary Alfred Marshall, so that modern neoclassical economics is built on the work of only one of the original founders, Leon Walras, Jevons’s work having left little impression on the future course of economics.

Menger’s work, however, though largely, but not totally, eclipsed by that of Marshall and Walras, did leave a more enduring imprint and a more complicated legacy than Jevons’s — not only for economics, but for political theory and philosophy, more generally. Judging from Edward Chancellor’s largely favorable review of Wasserman’s volume, one might even hope that a start might be made in reassessing that legacy, a process that could provide an opportunity for mutually beneficial interaction between long-estranged schools of thought — one dominant and one marginal — that are struggling to overcome various conceptual, analytical and philosophical problems for which no obvious solutions seem available.

In view of the failure of modern economists to anticipate the Great Recession of 2008, the worst financial shock since the 1930s, it was perhaps inevitable that the Austrian School, a once favored branch of economics that had made a specialty of booms and busts, would enjoy a revival of public interest.

The theme of Austrians as outsiders runs through Janek Wasserman’s The Marginal Revolutionaries: How Austrian Economists Fought the War of Ideas, a general history of the Austrian School from its beginnings to the present day. The title refers both to the later marginalization of the Austrian economists and to the original insight of its founding father, Carl Menger, who introduced the notion of marginal utility—namely, that economic value does not derive from the cost of inputs such as raw material or labor, as David Ricardo and later Karl Marx suggested, but from the utility an individual derives from consuming an additional amount of any good or service. Water, for instance, may be indispensable to humans, but when it is abundant, the marginal value of an extra glass of the stuff is close to zero. Diamonds are less useful than water, but a great deal rarer, and hence command a high market price. If diamonds were as common as dewdrops, however, they would be worthless.

Menger was not the first economist to ponder . . . the “paradox of value” (why useless things are worth more than essentials)—the Italian Ferdinando Galiani had gotten there more than a century earlier. His central idea of marginal utility was simultaneously developed in England by W. S. Jevons and on the Continent by Léon Walras. Menger’s originality lay in applying his theory to the entire production process, showing how the value of capital goods like factory equipment derived from the marginal value of the goods they produced. As a result, Austrian economics developed a keen interest in the allocation of capital. Furthermore, Menger and his disciples emphasized that value was inherently subjective, since it depends on what consumers are willing to pay for something; this imbued the Austrian school from the outset with a fiercely individualistic and anti-statist aspect.

Menger’s unique contribution is indeed worthy of special emphasis. He was more explicit than Jevons or Walras, and certainly more than Marshall, in explaining that the value of factors of production is derived entirely from the value of the incremental output that could be attributed (or imputed) to their services. This insight implies that cost is not an independent determinant of value, as Marshall, despite accepting the principle of marginal utility, continued to insist – famously referring to demand and supply as the two blades of the analytical scissors that determine value. The cost of production therefore turns out to be nothing but the value the output foregone when factors are used to produce one output instead of the next most highly valued alternative. Cost therefore does not determine, but is determined by, equilibrium price, which means that, in practice, costs are always subjective and conjectural. (I have made this point in an earlier post in a different context.) I will have more to say below about the importance of Menger’s specific contribution and its lasting imprint on the Austrian school.

Menger’s Principles of Economics, published in 1871, established the study of economics in Vienna—before then, no economic journals were published in Austria, and courses in economics were taught in law schools. . . .

The Austrian School was also bound together through family and social ties: [his two leading disciples, [Eugen von] Böhm-Bawerk and Friedrich von Wieser [were brothers-in-law]. [Wieser was] a close friend of the statistician Franz von Juraschek, Friedrich Hayek’s maternal grandfather. Young Austrian economists bonded on Alpine excursions and met in Böhm-Bawerk’s famous seminars (also attended by the Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin and the German Marxist Rudolf Hilferding). Ludwig von Mises continued this tradition, holding private seminars in Vienna in the 1920s and later in New York. As Wasserman notes, the Austrian School was “a social network first and last.”

After World War I, the Habsburg Empire was dismantled by the victorious Allies. The Austrian bureaucracy shrank, and university placements became scarce. Menger, the last surviving member of the first generation of Austrian economists, died in 1921. The economic school he founded, with its emphasis on individualism and free markets, might have disappeared under the socialism of “Red Vienna.” Instead, a new generation of brilliant young economists emerged: Schumpeter, Hayek, and Mises—all of whom published best-selling works in English and remain familiar names today—along with a number of less well known but influential economists, including Oskar Morgenstern, Fritz Machlup, Alexander Gerschenkron, and Gottfried Haberler.

Two factual corrections are in order. Menger outlived Böhm-Bawerk, but not his other chief disciple von Wieser, who died in 1926, not long after supervising Hayek’s doctoral dissertation, later published in 1927, and, in 1933, translated into English and published as Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle. Moreover, a 16-year gap separated Mises and Schumpeter, who were exact contemporaries, from Hayek (born in 1899) who was a few years older than Gerschenkron, Haberler, Machlup and Morgenstern.

All the surviving members or associates of the Austrian school wound up either in the US or Britain after World War II, and Hayek, who had taken a position in London in 1931, moved to the US in 1950, taking a position in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago after having been refused a position in the economics department. Through the intervention of wealthy sponsors, Mises obtained an academic appointment of sorts at the NYU economics department, where he succeeded in training two noteworthy disciples who wrote dissertations under his tutelage, Murray Rothbard and Israel Kirzner. (Kirzner wrote his dissertation under Mises at NYU, but Rothbard did his graduate work at Colulmbia.) Schumpeter, Haberler and Gerschenkron eventually took positions at Harvard, while Machlup (with some stops along the way) and Morgenstern made their way to Princeton. However, Hayek’s interests shifted from pure economic theory to deep philosophical questions. While Machlup and Haberler continued to work on economic theory, the Austrian influence on their work after World War II was barely recognizable. Morgenstern and Schumpeter made major contributions to economics, but did not hide their alienation from the doctrines of the Austrian School.

So there was little reason to expect that the Austrian School would survive its dispersal when the Nazis marched unopposed into Vienna in 1938. That it did survive is in no small measure due to its ideological usefulness to anti-socialist supporters who provided financial support to Hayek, enabling his appointment to the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and Mises’s appointment at NYU, and other forms of research support to Hayek, Mises and other like-minded scholars, as well as funding the Mont Pelerin Society, an early venture in globalist networking, started by Hayek in 1947. Such support does not discredit the research to which it gave rise. That the survival of the Austrian School would probably not have been possible without the support of wealthy benefactors who anticipated that the Austrians would advance their political and economic interests does not invalidate the research thereby enabled. (In the interest of transparency, I acknowledge that I received support from such sources for two books that I wrote.)

Because Austrian School survivors other than Mises and Hayek either adapted themselves to mainstream thinking without renouncing their earlier beliefs (Haberler and Machlup) or took an entirely different direction (Morgenstern), and because the economic mainstream shifted in two directions that were most uncongenial to the Austrians: Walrasian general-equilibrium theory and Keynesian macroeconomics, the Austrian remnant, initially centered on Mises at NYU, adopted a sharply adversarial attitude toward mainstream economic doctrines.

Despite its minute numbers, the lonely remnant became a house divided against itself, Mises’s two outstanding NYU disciples, Murray Rothbard and Israel Kirzner, holding radically different conceptions of how to carry on the Austrian tradition. An extroverted radical activist, Rothbard was not content just to lead a school of economic thought, he aspired to become the leader of a fantastical anarchistic revolutionary movement to replace all established governments under a reign of private-enterprise anarcho-capitalism. Rothbard’s political radicalism, which, despite his Jewish ancestry, even included dabbling in Holocaust denialism, so alienated his mentor, that Mises terminated all contact with Rothbard for many years before his death. Kirzner, self-effacing, personally conservative, with no political or personal agenda other than the advancement of his own and his students’ scholarship, published hundreds of articles and several books filling 10 thick volumes of his collected works published by the Liberty Fund, while establishing a robust Austrian program at NYU, training many excellent scholars who found positions in respected academic and research institutions. Similar Austrian programs, established under the guidance of Kirzner’s students, were started at other institutions, most notably at George Mason University.

One of the founders of the Cato Institute, which for nearly half a century has been the leading avowedly libertarian think tank in the US, Rothbard was eventually ousted by Cato, and proceeded to set up a rival think tank, the Ludwig von Mises Institute, at Auburn University, which has turned into a focal point for extreme libertarians and white nationalists to congregate, get acquainted, and strategize together.

Isolation and marginalization tend to cause a subspecies either to degenerate toward extinction, to somehow blend in with the members of the larger species, thereby losing its distinctive characteristics, or to accentuate its unique traits, enabling it to find some niche within which to survive as a distinct sub-species. Insofar as they have engaged in economic analysis rather than in various forms of political agitation and propaganda, the Rothbardian Austrians have focused on anarcho-capitalist theory and the uniquely perverse evils of fractional-reserve banking.

Rejecting the political extremism of the Rothbardians, Kirznerian Austrians differentiate themselves by analyzing what they call market processes and emphasizing the limitations on the knowledge and information possessed by actual decision-makers. They attribute this misplaced focus on equilibrium to the extravagantly unrealistic and patently false assumptions of mainstream models on the knowledge possessed by economic agents, which effectively make equilibrium the inevitable — and trivial — conclusion entailed by those extreme assumptions. In their view, the focus of mainstream models on equilibrium states with unrealistic assumptions results from a preoccupation with mathematical formalism in which mathematical tractability rather than sound economics dictates the choice of modeling assumptions.

Skepticism of the extreme assumptions about the informational endowments of agents covers a range of now routine assumptions in mainstream models, e.g., the ability of agents to form precise mathematical estimates of the probability distributions of future states of the world, implying that agents never confront decisions about which they are genuinely uncertain. Austrians also object to the routine assumption that all the information needed to determine the solution of a model is the common knowledge of the agents in the model, so that an existing equilibrium cannot be disrupted unless new information randomly and unpredictably arrives. Each agent in the model having been endowed with the capacity of a semi-omniscient central planner, solving the model for its equilibrium state becomes a trivial exercise in which the optimal choices of a single agent are taken as representative of the choices made by all of the model’s other, semi-omnicient, agents.

Although shreds of subjectivism — i.e., agents make choices based own preference orderings — are shared by all neoclassical economists, Austrian criticisms of mainstream neoclassical models are aimed at what Austrians consider to be their insufficient subjectivism. It is this fierce commitment to a robust conception of subjectivism, in which an equilibrium state of shared expectations by economic agents must be explained, not just assumed, that Chancellor properly identifies as a distinguishing feature of the Austrian School.

Menger’s original idea of marginal utility was posited on the subjective preferences of consumers. This subjectivist position was retained by subsequent generations of the school. It inspired a tradition of radical individualism, which in time made the Austrians the favorite economists of American libertarians. Subjectivism was at the heart of the Austrians’ polemical rejection of Marxism. Not only did they dismiss Marx’s labor theory of value, they argued that socialism couldn’t possibly work since it would lack the means to allocate resources efficiently.

The problem with central planning, according to Hayek, is that so much of the knowledge that people act upon is specific knowledge that individuals acquire in the course of their daily activities and life experience, knowledge that is often difficult to articulate – mere intuition and guesswork, yet more reliable than not when acted upon by people whose livelihoods depend on being able to do the right thing at the right time – much less communicate to a central planner.

Chancellor attributes Austrian mistrust of statistical aggregates or indices, like GDP and price levels, to Austrian subjectivism, which regards such magnitudes as abstractions irrelevant to the decisions of private decision-makers, except perhaps in forming expectations about the actions of government policy makers. (Of course, this exception potentially provides full subjectivist license and legitimacy for macroeconomic theorizing despite Austrian misgivings.) Observed statistical correlations between aggregate variables identified by macroeconomists are dismissed as irrelevant unless grounded in, and implied by, the purposeful choices of economic agents.

But such scruples about the use of macroeconomic aggregates and inferring causal relationships from observed correlations are hardly unique to the Austrian school. One of the most important contributions of the 20th century to the methodology of economics was an article by T. C. Koopmans, “Measurement Without Theory,” which argued that measured correlations between macroeconomic variables provide a reliable basis for business-cycle research and policy advice only if the correlations can be explained in terms of deeper theoretical or structural relationships. The Nobel Prize Committee, in awarding the 1975 Prize to Koopmans, specifically mentioned this paper in describing Koopmans’s contributions. Austrians may be more fastidious than their mainstream counterparts in rejecting macroeconomic relationships not based on microeconomic principles, but they aren’t the only ones mistrustful of mere correlations.

Chancellor cites mistrust about the use of statistical aggregates and price indices as a factor in Hayek’s disastrous policy advice warning against anti-deflationary or reflationary measures during the Great Depression.

Their distrust of price indexes brought Austrian economists into conflict with mainstream economic opinion during the 1920s. At the time, there was a general consensus among leading economists, ranging from Irving Fisher at Yale to Keynes at Cambridge, that monetary policy should aim at delivering a stable price level, and in particular seek to prevent any decline in prices (deflation). Hayek, who earlier in the decade had spent time at New York University studying monetary policy and in 1927 became the first director of the Austrian Institute for Business Cycle Research, argued that the policy of price stabilization was misguided. It was only natural, Hayek wrote, that improvements in productivity should lead to lower prices and that any resistance to this movement (sometimes described as “good deflation”) would have damaging economic consequences.

The argument that deflation stemming from economic expansion and increasing productivity is normal and desirable isn’t what led Hayek and the Austrians astray in the Great Depression; it was their failure to realize the deflation that triggered the Great Depression was a monetary phenomenon caused by a malfunctioning international gold standard. Moreover, Hayek’s own business-cycle theory explicitly stated that a neutral (stable) monetary policy ought to aim at keeping the flow of total spending and income constant in nominal terms while his policy advice of welcoming deflation meant a rapidly falling rate of total spending. Hayek’s policy advice was an inexcusable error of judgment, which, to his credit, he did acknowledge after the fact, though many, perhaps most, Austrians have refused to follow him even that far.

Considered from the vantage point of almost a century, the collapse of the Austrian School seems to have been inevitable. Hayek’s long-shot bid to establish his business-cycle theory as the dominant explanation of the Great Depression was doomed from the start by the inadequacies of the very specific version of his basic model and his disregard of the obvious implication of that model: prevent total spending from contracting. The promising young students and colleagues who had briefly gathered round him upon his arrival in England, mostly attached themselves to other mentors, leaving Hayek with only one or two immediate disciples to carry on his research program. The collapse of his research program, which he himself abandoned after completing his final work in economic theory, marked a research hiatus of almost a quarter century, with the notable exception of publications by his student, Ludwig Lachmann who, having decamped in far-away South Africa, labored in relative obscurity for most of his career.

The early clash between Keynes and Hayek, so important in the eyes of Chancellor and others, is actually overrated. Chancellor, quoting Lachmann and Nicholas Wapshott, describes it as a clash of two irreconcilable views of the economic world, and the clash that defined modern economics. In later years, Lachmann actually sought to effect a kind of reconciliation between their views. It was not a conflict of visions that undid Hayek in 1931-32, it was his misapplication of a narrowly constructed model to a problem for which it was irrelevant.

Although the marginalization of the Austrian School, after its misguided policy advice in the Great Depression and its dispersal during and after World War II, is hardly surprising, the unwillingness of mainstream economists to sort out what was useful and relevant in the teachings of the Austrian School from what is not was unfortunate not only for the Austrians. Modern economics was itself impoverished by its disregard for the complexity and interconnectedness of economic phenomena. It’s precisely the Austrian attentiveness to the complexity of economic activity — the necessity for complementary goods and factors of production to be deployed over time to satisfy individual wants – that is missing from standard economic models.

That Austrian attentiveness, pioneered by Menger himself, to the complementarity of inputs applied over the course of time undoubtedly informed Hayek’s seminal contribution to economic thought: his articulation of the idea of intertemporal equilibrium that comprehends the interdependence of the plans of independent agents and the need for them to all fit together over the course of time for equilibrium to obtain. Hayek’s articulation represented a conceptual advance over earlier versions of equilibrium analysis stemming from Walras and Pareto, and even from Irving Fisher who did pay explicit attention to intertemporal equilibrium. But in Fisher’s articulation, intertemporal consistency was described in terms of aggregate production and income, leaving unexplained the mechanisms whereby the individual plans to produce and consume particular goods over time are reconciled. Hayek’s granular exposition enabled him to attend to, and articulate, necessary but previously unspecified relationships between the current prices and expected future prices.

Moreover, neither mainstream nor Austrian economists have ever explained how prices are adjust in non-equilibrium settings. The focus of mainstream analysis has always been the determination of equilibrium prices, with the implicit understanding that “market forces” move the price toward its equilibrium value. The explanatory gap has been filled by the mainstream New Classical School which simply posits the existence of an equilibrium price vector, and, to replace an empirically untenable tâtonnement process for determining prices, posits an equally untenable rational-expectations postulate to assert that market economies typically perform as if they are in, or near the neighborhood of, equilibrium, so that apparent fluctuations in real output are viewed as optimal adjustments to unexplained random productivity shocks.

Alternatively, in New Keynesian mainstream versions, constraints on price changes prevent immediate adjustments to rationally expected equilibrium prices, leading instead to persistent reductions in output and employment following demand or supply shocks. (I note parenthetically that the assumption of rational expectations is not, as often suggested, an assumption distinct from market-clearing, because the rational expectation of all agents of a market-clearing price vector necessarily implies that the markets clear unless one posits a constraint, e.g., a binding price floor or ceiling, that prevents all mutually beneficial trades from being executed.)

Similarly, the Austrian school offers no explanation of how unconstrained price adjustments by market participants is a sufficient basis for a systemic tendency toward equilibrium. Without such an explanation, their belief that market economies have strong self-correcting properties is unfounded, because, as Hayek demonstrated in his 1937 paper, “Economics and Knowledge,” price adjustments in current markets don’t, by themselves, ensure a systemic tendency toward equilibrium values that coordinate the plans of independent economic agents unless agents’ expectations of future prices are sufficiently coincident. To take only one passage of many discussing the difficulty of explaining or accounting for a process that leads individuals toward a state of equilibrium, I offer the following as an example:

All that this condition amounts to, then, is that there must be some discernible regularity in the world which makes it possible to predict events correctly. But, while this is clearly not sufficient to prove that people will learn to foresee events correctly, the same is true to a hardly less degree even about constancy of data in an absolute sense. For any one individual, constancy of the data does in no way mean constancy of all the facts independent of himself, since, of course, only the tastes and not the actions of the other people can in this sense be assumed to be constant. As all those other people will change their decisions as they gain experience about the external facts and about other people’s actions, there is no reason why these processes of successive changes should ever come to an end. These difficulties are well known, and I mention them here only to remind you how little we actually know about the conditions under which an equilibrium will ever be reached.

In this theoretical muddle, Keynesian economics and the neoclassical synthesis were abandoned, because the key proposition of Keynesian economics was supposedly the tendency of a modern economy toward an equilibrium with involuntary unemployment while the neoclassical synthesis rejected that proposition, so that the supposed synthesis was no more than an agreement to disagree. That divided house could not stand. The inability of Keynesian economists such as Hicks, Modigliani, Samuelson and Patinkin to find a satisfactory (at least in terms of a preferred Walrasian general-equilibrium model) rationalization for Keynes’s conclusion that an economy would likely become stuck in an equilibrium with involuntary unemployment led to the breakdown of the neoclassical synthesis and the displacement of Keynesianism as the dominant macroeconomic paradigm.

But perhaps the way out of the muddle is to abandon the idea that a systemic tendency toward equilibrium is a property of an economic system, and, instead, to recognize that equilibrium is, as Hayek suggested, a contingent, not a necessary, property of a complex economy. Ludwig Lachmann, cited by Chancellor for his remark that the early theoretical clash between Hayek and Keynes was a conflict of visions, eventually realized that in an important sense both Hayek and Keynes shared a similar subjectivist conception of the crucial role of individual expectations of the future in explaining the stability or instability of market economies. And despite the efforts of New Classical economists to establish rational expectations as an axiomatic equilibrating property of market economies, that notion rests on nothing more than arbitrary methodological fiat.

Chancellor concludes by suggesting that Wasserman’s characterization of the Austrians as marginalized is not entirely accurate inasmuch as “the Austrians’ view of the economy as a complex, evolving system continues to inspire new research.” Indeed, if economics is ever to find a way out of its current state of confusion, following Lachmann in his quest for a synthesis of sorts between Keynes and Hayek might just be a good place to start from.

Representative Agents, Homunculi and Faith-Based Macroeconomics

After my previous post comparing the neoclassical synthesis in its various versions to the mind-body problem, there was an interesting Twitter exchange between Steve Randy Waldman and David Andolfatto in which Andolfatto queried whether Waldman and I are aware that there are representative-agent models in which the equilibrium is not Pareto-optimal. Andalfatto raised an interesting point, but what I found interesting about it might be different from what Andalfatto was trying to show, which, I am guessing, was that a representative-agent modeling strategy doesn’t necessarily commit the theorist to the conclusion that the world is optimal and that the solutions of the model can never be improved upon by a monetary/fiscal-policy intervention. I concede the point. It is well-known I think that, given the appropriate assumptions, a general-equilibrium model can have a sub-optimal solution. Given those assumptions, the corresponding representative-agent will also choose a sub-optimal solution. So I think I get that, but perhaps there’s a more subtle point  that I’m missing. If so, please set me straight.

But what I was trying to argue was not that representative-agent models are necessarily optimal, but that representative-agent models suffer from an inherent, and, in my view, fatal, flaw: they can’t explain any real macroeconomic phenomenon, because a macroeconomic phenomenon has to encompass something more than the decision of a single agent, even an omniscient central planner. At best, the representative agent is just a device for solving an otherwise intractable general-equilibrium model, which is how I think Lucas originally justified the assumption.

Yet just because a general-equilibrium model can be formulated so that it can be solved as the solution of an optimizing agent does not explain the economic mechanism or process that generates the solution. The mathematical solution of a model does not necessarily provide any insight into the adjustment process or mechanism by which the solution actually is, or could be, achieved in the real world. Your ability to find a solution for a mathematical problem does not mean that you understand the real-world mechanism to which the solution of your model corresponds. The correspondence between your model may be a strictly mathematical correspondence which may not really be in any way descriptive of how any real-world mechanism or process actually operates.

Here’s an example of what I am talking about. Consider a traffic-flow model explaining how congestion affects vehicle speed and the flow of traffic. It seems obvious that traffic congestion is caused by interactions between the different vehicles traversing a thoroughfare, just as it seems obvious that market exchange arises as the result of interactions between the different agents seeking to advance their own interests. OK, can you imagine building a useful traffic-flow model based on solving for the optimal plan of a representative vehicle?

I don’t think so. Once you frame the model in terms of a representative vehicle, you have abstracted from the phenomenon to be explained. The entire exercise would be pointless – unless, that is, you assumed that interactions between vehicles are so minimal that they can be ignored. But then why would you be interested in congestion effects? If you want to claim that your model has any relevance to the effect of congestion on traffic flow, you can’t base the claim on an assumption that there is no congestion.

Or to take another example, suppose you want to explain the phenomenon that, at sporting events, all, or almost all, the spectators sit in their seats but occasionally get up simultaneously from their seats to watch the play on the field or court. Would anyone ever think that an explanation in terms of a representative spectator could explain that phenomenon?

In just the same way, a representative-agent macroeconomic model necessarily abstracts from the interactions between actual agents. Obviously, by abstracting from the interactions, the model can’t demonstrate that there are no interactions between agents in the real world or that their interactions are too insignificant to matter. I would be shocked if anyone really believed that the interactions between agents are unimportant, much less, negligible; nor have I seen an argument that interactions between agents are unimportant, the concept of network effects, to give just one example, being an important topic in microeconomics.

It’s no answer to say that all the interactions are accounted for within the general-equilibrium model. That is just a form of question-begging. The representative agent is being assumed because without him the problem of finding a general-equilibrium solution of the model is very difficult or intractable. Taking into account interactions makes the model too complicated to work with analytically, so it is much easier — but still hard enough to allow the theorist to perform some fancy mathematical techniques — to ignore those pesky interactions. On top of that, the process by which the real world arrives at outcomes to which a general-equilibrium model supposedly bears at least some vague resemblance can’t even be described by conventional modeling techniques.

The modeling approach seems like that of a neuroscientist saying that, because he could simulate the functions, electrical impulses, chemical reactions, and neural connections in the brain – which he can’t do and isn’t even close to doing, even though a neuroscientist’s understanding of the brain far surpasses any economist’s understanding of the economy – he can explain consciousness. Simulating the operation of a brain would not explain consciousness, because the computer on which the neuroscientist performed the simulation would not become conscious in the course of the simulation.

Many neuroscientists and other materialists like to claim that consciousness is not real, that it’s just an epiphenomenon. But we all have the subjective experience of consciousness, so whatever it is that someone wants to call it, consciousness — indeed the entire world of mental phenomena denoted by that term — remains an unexplained phenomenon, a phenomenon that can only be dismissed as unreal on the basis of a metaphysical dogma that denies the existence of anything that can’t be explained as the result of material and physical causes.

I call that metaphysical belief a dogma not because it’s false — I have no way of proving that it’s false — but because materialism is just as much a metaphysical belief as deism or monotheism. It graduates from belief to dogma when people assert not only that the belief is true but that there’s something wrong with you if you are unwilling to believe it as well. The most that I would say against the belief in materialism is that I can’t understand how it could possibly be true. But I admit that there are a lot of things that I just don’t understand, and I will even admit to believing in some of those things.

New Classical macroeconomists, like, say, Robert Lucas and, perhaps, Thomas Sargent, like to claim that unless a macroeconomic model is microfounded — by which they mean derived from an explicit intertemporal optimization exercise typically involving a representative agent or possibly a small number of different representative agents — it’s not an economic model, because the model, being vulnerable to the Lucas critique, is theoretically superficial and vacuous. But only models of intertemporal equilibrium — a set of one or more mutually consistent optimal plans — are immune to the Lucas critique, so insisting on immunity to the Lucas critique as a prerequisite for a macroeconomic model is a guarantee of failure if your aim to explain anything other than an intertemporal equilibrium.

Unless, that is, you believe that real world is in fact the realization of a general equilibrium model, which is what real-business-cycle theorists, like Edward Prescott, at least claim to believe. Like materialist believers that all mental states are epiphenomenous, and that consciousness is an (unexplained) illusion, real-business-cycle theorists purport to deny that there is such a thing as a disequilibrium phenomenon, the so-called business cycle, in their view, being nothing but a manifestation of the intertemporal-equilibrium adjustment of an economy to random (unexplained) productivity shocks. According to real-business-cycle theorists, such characteristic phenomena of business cycles as surprise, regret, disappointed expectations, abandoned and failed plans, the inability to find work at wages comparable to wages that other similar workers are being paid are not real phenomena; they are (unexplained) illusions and misnomers. The real-business-cycle theorists don’t just fail to construct macroeconomic models; they deny the very existence of macroeconomics, just as strict materialists deny the existence of consciousness.

What is so preposterous about the New-Classical/real-business-cycle methodological position is not the belief that the business cycle can somehow be modeled as a purely equilibrium phenomenon, implausible as that idea seems, but the insistence that only micro-founded business-cycle models are methodologically acceptable. It is one thing to believe that ultimately macroeconomics and business-cycle theory will be reduced to the analysis of individual agents and their interactions. But current micro-founded models can’t provide explanations for what many of us think are basic features of macroeconomic and business-cycle phenomena. If non-micro-founded models can provide explanations for those phenomena, even if those explanations are not fully satisfactory, what basis is there for rejecting them just because of a methodological precept that disqualifies all non-micro-founded models?

According to Kevin Hoover, the basis for insisting that only micro-founded macroeconomic models are acceptable, even if the microfoundation consists in a single representative agent optimizing for an entire economy, is eschatological. In other words, because of a belief that economics will eventually develop analytical or computational techniques sufficiently advanced to model an entire economy in terms of individual interacting agents, an analysis based on a single representative agent, as the first step on this theoretical odyssey, is somehow methodologically privileged over alternative models that do not share that destiny. Hoover properly rejects the presumptuous notion that an avowed, but unrealized, theoretical destiny, can provide a privileged methodological status to an explanatory strategy. The reductionist microfoundationalism of New-Classical macroeconomics and real-business-cycle theory, with which New Keynesian economists have formed an alliance of convenience, is truly a faith-based macroeconomics.

The remarkable similarity between the reductionist microfoundational methodology of New-Classical macroeconomics and the reductionist materialist approach to the concept of mind suggests to me that there is also a close analogy between the representative agent and what philosophers of mind call a homunculus. The Cartesian materialist theory of mind maintains that, at some place or places inside the brain, there resides information corresponding to our conscious experience. The question then arises: how does our conscious experience access the latent information inside the brain? And the answer is that there is a homunculus (or little man) that processes the information for us so that we can perceive it through him. For example, the homunculus (see the attached picture of the little guy) views the image cast by light on the retina as if he were watching a movie projected onto a screen.

homunculus

But there is an obvious fallacy, because the follow-up question is: how does our little friend see anything? Well, the answer must be that there’s another, smaller, homunculus inside his brain. You can probably already tell that this argument is going to take us on an infinite regress. So what purports to be an explanation turns out to be just a form of question-begging. Sound familiar? The only difference between the representative agent and the homunculus is that the representative agent begs the question immediately without having to go on an infinite regress.

PS I have been sidetracked by other responsibilities, so I have not been blogging much, if at all, for the last few weeks. I hope to post more frequently, but I am afraid that my posting and replies to comments are likely to remain infrequent for the next couple of months.

The Neoclassical Synthesis and the Mind-Body Problem

The neoclassical synthesis that emerged in the early postwar period aimed at reconciling the macroeconomic (IS-LM) analysis derived from Keynes via Hicks and others with the neoclassical microeconomic analysis of general equilibrium derived from Walras. The macroeconomic analysis was focused on an equilibrium of income and expenditure flows while the Walrasian analysis was focused on the equilibrium between supply and demand in individual markets. The two types of analysis seemed to be incommensurate inasmuch as the conditions for equilibrium in the two analysis did not seem to match up against each other. How does an analysis focused on the equality of aggregate flows of income and expenditure get translated into an analysis focused on the equality of supply and demand in individual markets? The two languages seem to be different, so it is not obvious how a statement formulated in one language gets translated into the other. And even if a translation is possible, does the translation hold under all, or only under some, conditions? And if so, what are those conditions?

The original neoclassical synthesis did not aim to provide a definitive answer to those questions, but it was understood to assert that if the equality of income and expenditure was assured at a level consistent with full employment, one could safely assume that market forces would take care of the allocation of resources, so that markets would be cleared and the conditions of microeconomic general equilibrium satisfied, at least as a first approximation. This version of the neoclassical synthesis was obviously ad hoc and an unsatisfactory resolution of the incommensurability of the two levels of analysis. Don Patinkin sought to provide a rigorous reconciliation of the two levels of analysis in his treatise Money, Interest and Prices. But for all its virtues – and they are numerous – Patinkin’s treatise failed to bridge the gap between the two levels of analysis.

As I mentioned recently in a post on Romer and Lucas, Kenneth Arrow in a 1967 review of Samuelson’s Collected Works commented disparagingly on the neoclassical synthesis of which Samuelson was a leading proponent. The widely shared dissatisfaction expressed by Arrow motivated much of the work that soon followed on the microfoundations of macroeconomics exemplified in the famous 1970 Phelps volume. But the motivation for the search for microfoundations was then (before the rational expectations revolution) to specify the crucial deviations from the assumptions underlying the standard Walrasian general-equilibrium model that would generate actual or seeming price rigidities, which a straightforward – some might say superficial — understanding of neoclassical microeconomic theory suggested were necessary to explain why, after a macro-disturbance, equilibrium was not rapidly restored by price adjustments. Two sorts of explanations emerged from the early microfoundations literature: a) search and matching theories assuming that workers and employers must expend time and resources to find appropriate matches; b) institutional theories of efficiency wages or implicit contracts that explain why employers and workers prefer layoffs to wage cuts in response to negative demand shocks.

Forty years on, the search and matching theories do not seem capable of accounting for the magnitude of observed fluctuations in employment or the cyclical variation in layoffs, and the institutional theories are still difficult to reconcile with the standard neoclassical assumptions, remaining an ad hoc appendage to New Keynesian models that otherwise adhere to the neoclassical paradigm. Thus, although the original neoclassical synthesis in which the Keynesian income-expenditure model was seen as a pre-condition for the validity of the neoclassical model was rejected within a decade of Arrow’s dismissive comment about the neoclassical synthesis, Tom Sargent has observed in a recent review of Robert Lucas’s Collected Papers on Monetary Theory that Lucas has implicitly adopted a new version of the neoclassical synthesis dominated by an intertemporal neoclassical general-equilibrium model, but with the proviso that substantial shocks to aggregate demand and the price level are prevented by monetary policy, thereby making the neoclassical model a reasonable approximation to reality.

Ok, so you are probably asking what does all this have to do with the mind-body problem? A lot, I think in that both the neoclassical synthesis and the mind-body problem involve a disconnect between two kinds – two levels – of explanation. The neoclassical synthesis asserts some sort of connection – but a problematic one — between the explanatory apparatus – macroeconomics — used to understand the cyclical fluctuations of what we are used to think of as the aggregate economy and the explanatory apparatus – microeconomics — used to understand the constituent elements of the aggregate economy — households and firms — and how those elements are related to, and interact with, each other.

The mind-body problem concerns the relationship between the mental – our direct experience of a conscious inner life of thoughts, emotions, memories, decisions, hopes and regrets — and the physical – matter, atoms, neurons. A basic postulate of science is that all phenomena have material causes. So the existence of conscious states that seem to us, by way of our direct experience, to be independent of material causes is also highly problematic. There are a few strategies for handling the problem. One is to assert that the mind truly is independent of the body, which is to say that consciousness is not the result of physical causes. A second is to say that mind is not independent of the body; we just don’t understand the nature of the relationship. There are two possible versions of this strategy: a) that although the nature of the relationship is unknown to us now, advances in neuroscience could reveal to us the way in which consciousness is caused by the operation of the brain; b) although our minds are somehow related to the operation of our brains, the nature of this relationship is beyond the capacity of our minds or brains to comprehend owing to considerations analogous to Godel’s incompleteness theorem (a view espoused by the philosopher Colin McGinn among others); in other words, the mind-body problem is inherently beyond human understanding. And the third strategy is to deny the existence of consciousness, because a conscious state is identical with the physical state of a brain, so that consciousness is just an epiphenomenon of a brain state; we in our naivete may think that our conscious states have a separate existence, but those states are strictly identical with corresponding brain states, so that whatever conscious state that we think we are experiencing has been entirely produced by the physical forces that determine the behavior of our brains and the configuration of its physical constituents.

The first, and probably the last, thing that one needs to understand about the third strategy is that, as explained by Colin McGinn (see e.g., here), its validity has not been demonstrated by neuroscience or by any other branch of science; it is, no less than any of the other strategies, strictly a metaphysical position. The mind-body problem is a problem precisely because science has not even come close to demonstrating how mental states are caused by, let alone that they are identical to, brain states, despite some spurious misinterpretations of research that purport to show such an identity.

Analogous to the scientific principle that all phenomena have material or physical causes, there is in economics and social science a principle called methodological individualism, which roughly states that explanations of social outcomes should be derived from theories about the conduct of individuals, not from theories about abstract social entities that exist independently of their constituent elements. The underlying motivation for methodological individualism (as opposed to political individualism with which it is related but from which it is distinct) was to counter certain ideas popular in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries asserting the existence of metaphysical social entities like “history” that are somehow distinct from yet impinge upon individual human beings, and that there are laws of history or social development from which future states of the world can be predicted, as Hegel, Marx and others tried to do. This notion gave rise to a two famous books by Popper: The Open Society and its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism. Methodological individualism as articulated by Popper was thus primarily an attack on the attribution of special powers to determine the course of future events to abstract metaphysical or mystical entities like history or society that are supposedly things or beings in themselves distinct from the individual human beings of which they are constituted. Methodological individualism does not deny the existence of collective entities like society; it simply denies that such collective entities exist as objective facts that can be observed as such. Our apprehension of these entities must be built up from more basic elements — individuals and their plans, beliefs and expectations — that we can apprehend directly.

However, methodological individualism is not the same as reductionism; methodological individualism teaches us to look for explanations of higher-level phenomena, e.g., a pattern of social relationships like the business cycle, in terms of the basic constituents forming the pattern: households, business firms, banks, central banks and governments. It does not assert identity between the pattern of relationships and the constituent elements; it says that the pattern can be understood in terms of interactions between the elements. Thus, a methodologically individualistic explanation of the business cycle in terms of the interactions between agents – households, businesses, etc. — would be analogous to an explanation of consciousness in terms of the brain if an explanation of consciousness existed. A methodologically individualistic explanation of the business cycle would not be analogous to an assertion that consciousness exists only as an epiphenomenon of brain states. The assertion that consciousness is nothing but the epiphenomenon of a corresponding brain state is reductionist; it asserts an identity between consciousness and brain states without explaining how consciousness is caused by brain states.

In business-cycle theory, the analogue of such a reductionist assertion of identity between higher-level and lower level phenomena is the assertion that the business cycle is not the product of the interaction of individual agents, but is simply the optimal plan of a representative agent. On this account, the business cycle becomes an epiphenomenon; apparent fluctuations being nothing more than the optimal choices of the representative agent. Of course, everyone knows that the representative agent is merely a convenient modeling device in terms of which a business-cycle theorist tries to account for the observed fluctuations. But that is precisely the point. The whole exercise is a sham; the representative agent is an as-if device that does not ground business-cycle fluctuations in the conduct of individual agents and their interactions, but simply asserts an identity between those interactions and the supposed decisions of the fictitious representative agent. The optimality conditions in terms of which the model is solved completely disregard the interactions between individuals that might cause an unintended pattern of relationships between those individuals. The distinctive feature of methodological individualism is precisely the idea that the interactions between individuals can lead to unintended consequences; it is by way of those unintended consequences that a higher-level pattern might emerge from interactions among individuals. And those individual interactions are exactly what is suppressed by representative-agent models.

So the notion that any analysis premised on a representative agent provides microfoundations for macroeconomic theory seems to be a travesty built on a total misunderstanding of the principle of methodological individualism that it purports to affirm.


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.

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