Archive for the 'scientism' Category

The Microfoundations Wars Continue

I see belatedly that the battle over microfoundations continues on the blogosphere, with Paul Krugman, Noah Smith, Adam Posen, and Nick Rowe all challenging the microfoundations position, while Tony Yates and Stephen Williamson defend it with Simon Wren-Lewis trying to serve as a peacemaker of sorts. I agree with most of the criticisms, but what I found most striking was the defense of microfoundations offered by Tony Yates, who expresses the mentality of the microfoundations school so well that I thought that some further commentary on his post would be worthwhile.

Yates’s post was prompted by a Twitter exchange between Yates and Adam Posen after Posen tweeted that microfoundations have no merit, an exaggeration no doubt, but not an unreasonable one. Noah Smith chimed in with a challenge to Yates to defend the proposition that microfoundations do have merit. Hence, the title (“Why Microfoundations Have Merit.”) of Yates’s post. What really caught my attention in Yates’s post is that, in trying to defend the proposition that microfounded models do have merit, Yates offers the following methodological, or perhaps aesthetic, pronouncement .

The merit in any economic thinking or knowledge must lie in it at some point producing an insight, a prediction, a prediction of the consequence of a policy action, that helps someone, or a government, or a society to make their lives better.

Microfounded models are models which tell an explicit story about what the people, firms, and large agents in a model do, and why.  What do they want to achieve, what constraints do they face in going about it?  My own position is that these are the ONLY models that have anything genuinely economic to say about anything.  It’s contestable whether they have any merit or not.

Paraphrasing, I would say that Yates defines merit as a useful insight or prediction into the way the world works. Fair enough. He then defines microfounded models as those models that tell an explicit story about what the agents populating the model are trying to do and the resulting outcomes of their efforts. This strikes me as a definition that includes more than just microfounded models, but let that pass, at least for the moment. Then comes the key point. These models “are the ONLY models that have anything genuinely economic to say about anything.” A breathtaking claim.

In other words, Yates believes that unless an insight, a proposition, or a conjecture, can be logically deduced from microfoundations, it is not economics. So whatever the merits of microfounded models, a non-microfounded model is not, as a matter of principle, an economic model. Talk about methodological authoritarianism.

Having established, to his own satisfaction at any rate, that only microfounded models have a legitimate claim to be considered economic, Yates defends the claim that microfounded models have merit by citing the Lucas critique as an early example of a meritorious insight derived from the “microfoundations project.” Now there is something a bit odd about this claim, because Yates neglects to mention that the Lucas critique, as Lucas himself acknowledged, had been anticipated by earlier economists, including both Keynes and Tinbergen. So if the microfoundations project does indeed have merit, the example chosen to illustrate that merit does nothing to show that the merit is in any way peculiar to the microfoundations project. It is also bears repeating (see my earlier post on the Lucas critique) that the Lucas critique only tells us about steady states, so it provides no useful information, insight, prediction or guidance about using monetary policy to speed up the recovery to a new steady state. So we should be careful not to attribute more merit to the Lucas critique than it actually possesses.

To be sure, in his Twitter exchange with Adam Posen, Yates mentioned several other meritorious contributions from the microfoundations project, each of which Posen rejected because the merit of those contributions lies in the intuition behind the one line idea. To which Yates responded:

This statement is highly perplexing to me.  Economic ideas are claims about what people and firms and governments do, and why, and what unfolds as a consequence.  The models are the ideas.  ‘Intuition’, the verbal counterpart to the models, are not separate things, the origins of the models.  They are utterances to ourselves that arise from us comprehending the logical object of the model, in the same way that our account to ourselves of an equation arises from the model.  One could make an argument for the separateness of ‘intuition’ at best, I think, as classifying it in some cases to be a conjecture about what a possible economic world [a microfounded model] would look like.  Intuition as story-telling to oneself can sometimes be a good check on whether what we have done is nonsense.  But not always.  Lots of results are not immediately intuitive.  That’s not a reason to dismiss it.  (Just like most of modern physics is not intuitive.)  Just a reason to have another think and read through your code carefully.

And Yates’s response is highly perplexing to me. An economic model is usually the product of some thought process intended to construct a coherent model from some mental raw materials (ideas) and resources (knowledge and techniques). The thought process is an attempt to embody some idea or ideas about a posited causal mechanism or about a posited mutual interdependency among variables of interest. The intuition is the idea or insight that some such causal mechanism or mutual interdependency exists. A model is one particular implementation (out of many other possible implementations) of the idea in a way that allows further implications of the idea to be deduced, thereby achieving an enhanced and deeper understanding of the original insight. The “microfoundations project” does not directly determine what kinds of ideas can be modeled, but it does require that models have certain properties to be considered acceptable implementations of any idea. In particular the model must incorporate a dynamic stochastic general equilibrium system with rational expectations and a unique equilibrium. Ideas not tractable given those modeling constraints are excluded. Posen’s point, it seems to me, is not that no worthwhile, meritorious ideas have been modeled within the modeling constraints imposed by the microfoundations project, but that the microfoundations project has done nothing to create or propagate those ideas; it has just forced those ideas to be implemented within the template of the microfoundations project.

None of the characteristic properties of the microfoundations project are assumptions for which there is compelling empirical or theoretical justification. We know how to prove the existence of a general equilibrium for economic models populated by agents satisfying certain rationality assumptions (assumptions for which there is no compelling a priori argument and whose primary justifications are tractability and the accuracy of the empirical implications deduced from them), but the conditions for a unique general equilibrium are way more stringent than the standard convexity assumptions required to prove existence. Moreover, even given the existence of a unique general equilibrium, there is no proof that an economy not in general equilibrium will reach the general equilibrium under the standard rules of price adjustment. Nor is there any empirical evidence to suggest that actual economies are in any sense in a general equilibrium, though one might reasonably suppose that actual economies are from time to time in the neighborhood of a general equilibrium. The rationality of expectations is in one sense an entirely ad hoc assumption, though an inconsistency between the predictions of a model, under the assumption of rational expectations, with the rationally expectations of the agents in the model is surely a sign that there is a problem in the structure of the model. But just because rational expectations can be used to check for latent design flaws in a model, it does not follow that assuming rational expectations leads to empirical implications that are generally, or even occasionally, empirically valid.

Thus, the key assumptions of microfounded models are not logically entailed by any deep axioms; they are imposed by methodological fiat, a philosophically and pragmatically unfounded insistence that certain modeling conventions be adhered to in order to count as “scientific.” Now it would be one thing if these modeling conventions were generating new, previously unknown, empirical relationships or generating more accurate predictions than those generated by non-microfounded models, but evidence that the predictions of microfounded models are better than the predictions of non-microfounded models is notably lacking. Indeed, Carlaw and Lipsey have shown that micro-founded models generate predictions that are less accurate than those generated by non-micofounded models. If microfounded theories represent scientific progress, they ought to be producing an increase, not a decrease, in explanatory power.

The microfoundations project is predicated on a gigantic leap of faith that the existing economy has an underlying structure that corresponds closely enough to the assumptions of the Arrow-Debreu model, suitably adjusted for stochastic elements and a variety of frictions (e.g., Calvo pricing) that may be introduced into the models depending on the modeler’s judgment about what constitutes an allowable friction. This is classic question-begging with a vengeance: arriving at a conclusion by assuming what needs to be proved. Such question begging is not necessarily illegitimate; every research program is based on some degree of faith or optimism that results not yet in hand will justify the effort required to generate those results. What is not legitimate is the claim that ONLY the models based on such question-begging assumptions are genuinely scientific.

This question-begging mentality masquerading as science is actually not unique to the microfoundations school. It is not uncommon among those with an exaggerated belief in the powers of science, a mentality that Hayek called scientism. It is akin to physicalism, the philosophical doctrine that all phenomena are physical. According to physicalism, there are no mental phenomena. What we perceive as mental phenomena, e.g., consciousness, is not real, but an illusion. Our mental states are really nothing but physical states. I do not say that physicalism is false, just that it is a philosophical position, not a proposition derived from science, and certainly not a fact that is, or can be, established by the currently available tools of science. It is a faith that some day — some day probably very, very far off into the future — science will demonstrate that our mental processes can be reduced to, and derived from, the laws of physics. Similarly, given the inability to account for observed fluctuations of output and employment in terms of microfoundations, the assertion that only microfounded models are scientific is simply an expression of faith in some, as yet unknown, future discovery, not a claim supported by any available scientific proof or evidence.


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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