Posts Tagged 'equilibrium'

The Equilibrium of Each Is the Result of the Equilibrium of All, or, the Rational Expectation of Each is the Result of the Rational Expectation of All

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post whose title (“The Idleness of Each Is the Result of the Idleness of All”) was taken from the marvelous remark of the great, but sadly forgotten, Cambridge economist Frederick Lavington’s book The Trade Cycle. Lavington was born two years after Ralph Hawtrey and two years before John Maynard Keynes. The brilliant insight expressed so eloquently by Lavington is that the inability of some those unemployed to find employment may not be the result of a voluntary decision made by an individual worker any more than the inability of a driver stuck in a traffic jam to drive at the speed he wants to drive at is a voluntary decision. The circumstances in which an unemployed worker finds himself may be such that he or she has no practical alternative other than to remain unemployed.

In this post I merely want to express the same idea from two different vantage points. In any economic model, the equilibrium decision of any agent in the model is conditional on a corresponding set of equilibrium decisions taken by all other agents in the model. Unless all other agents are making optimal choices, the equilibrium (optimal) choice of any individual agent is neither feasible nor optimal, because the optimality of any decision is conditional on the decisions taken by all other agents. Only if the optimal decisions of each are mutually consistent are they individually optimal. (Individual optimality does not necessarily result in overall optimality owing to interdependencies (aka externalities) among the individuals). My ability to buy as much as I want to, and to sell as much as I want to, at market-clearing prices is contingent on everyone else being able to buy and sell as much as I and they want to at those same prices.

Now let’s take the argument a step further. Suppose the equilibrium decisions involve making purchases and sales in both the present and the future, according to current expectations of what future conditions will be like. If you are running a business, how much inputs you buy today to turn into output to be sold tomorrow will depend on the price at which you expect to be able to sell the output produced tomorrow. If decisions to purchase and sell today depend not only on current prices but also on expected future prices, then your optimal decisions now about how much to buy and sell now will depend on your expectations of buying and selling prices in the future. For an equilibrium in which everyone can execute his or her plans (as originally formulated) to exist, each person must have rational expectations about what future prices will be, and such rational expectations are possible only when those expectations are mutually consistent. In game-theoretical terms, a Nash equilibrium obtains only when all the individual expectations on which decisions are conditional converge.

Here is how Tom Schelling explained the idea of rational – i.e., convergent – expectations in a classic discussion of cooperative games.

One may or may not agree with any particular hypothesis as to how a bargainer’s expectations are formed either in the bargaining process or before it and either by the bargaining itself or by other forces. But it does seem clear that the outcome of a bargaining process is to be described most immediately, most straightforwardly, and most empirically, in terms of some phenomenon of stable and convergent expectations. Whether one agrees explicitly to a bargain, or agrees tacitly, or accepts by default, he must if he has his wits about him, expect that he could do no better and recognize that the other party must reciprocate the feeling. Thus, the fact of an outcome, which is simply a coordinated choice, should be analytically characterized by the notion of convergent expectations.

The intuitive formulation, or even a careful formulation in psychological terms, of what it is that a rational player expects in relation to another rational player in the “pure” bargaining game, poses a problem in sheer scientific description. Both players, being rational, must recognize that the only kind of “rational” expectation they can have is a fully shared expectation of an outcome. It is not quite accurate – as a description of a psychological phenomenon – to say that one expects the second to concede something; the second’s readiness to concede or to accept is only an expression of what he expects the first to accept or to concede, which in turn is what he expects the first to expect the second to expect the first to expect, and so on. To avoid an “ad infinitum” in the description process, we have to say that both sense a shared expectation of an outcome; one’s expectation is a belief that both identify the outcome as being indicated by the situation, hence as virtually inevitable. Both players, in effect, accept a common authority – the power of the game to dictate its own solution through their intellectual capacity to perceive it – and what they “expect” is that they both perceive the same solution.

If expectations of everyone do not converge — individuals having conflicting expectations about what will happen — then the expectations of none of the individuals can be rational. Even if one individual correctly anticipates the outcome, from the point of view of the disequilibrium system as a whole, the correct expectations are not rational because those expectations are inconsistent with equilibrium of the entire system. A change in the expectations of any other individual would imply that future prices would change from what had been expected. Only equilibrium expectations can be considered rational, and equilibrium expectations are a set of individual expectations that are convergent.

What Kind of Equilibrium Is This?

In my previous post, I suggested that Stephen Williamson’s views about the incapacity of monetary policy to reduce unemployment, and his fears that monetary expansion would simply lead to higher inflation and a repeat of the bad old days the 1970s when inflation and unemployment spun out of control, follow from a theoretical presumption that the US economy is now operating (as it almost always does) in the neighborhood of equilibrium. This does not seem right to me, but it is the sort of deep theoretical assumption (e.g., like the rationality of economic agents) that is not subject to direct empirical testing. It is part of what the philosopher Imre Lakatos called the hard core of a (in this case Williamson’s) scientific research program. Whatever happens, Williamson will process the observed facts in terms of a theoretical paradigm in which prices adjust and markets clear. No other way of viewing reality makes sense, because Williamson cannot make any sense of it in terms of the theoretical paradigm or world view to which he is committed. I actually have some sympathy with that way of looking at the world, but not because I think it’s really true; it’s just the best paradigm we have at the moment. But I don’t want to follow that line of thought too far now, but who knows, maybe another time.

A good illustration of how Williamson understands his paradigm was provided by blogger J. P. Koning in his comment on my previous post copying the following quotation from a post written by Williamson a couple of years on his blog.

In other cases, as in the link you mention, there are people concerned about disequilibrium phenomena. These approaches are or were popular in Europe – I looked up Benassy and he is still hard at work. However, most of the mainstream – and here I’m including New Keynesians – sticks to equilibrium economics. New Keynesian models may have some stuck prices and wages, but those models don’t have to depart much from standard competitive equilibrium (or, if you like, competitive equilibrium with monopolistic competition). In those models, you have to determine what a firm with a stuck price produces, and that is where the big leap is. However, in terms of determining everything mathematically, it’s not a big deal. Equilibrium economics is hard enough as it is, without having to deal with the lack of discipline associated with “disequilibrium.” In equilibrium economics, particularly monetary equilibrium economics, we have all the equilibria (and more) we can handle, thanks.

I actually agree that departing from the assumption of equilibrium can involve a lack of discipline. Market clearing is a very powerful analytical tool, and to give it up without replacing it with an equally powerful analytical tool leaves us theoretically impoverished. But Williamson seems to suggest (or at least leaves ambiguous) that there is only one kind of equilibrium that can be handled theoretically, namely a fully optimal general equilibrium with perfect foresight (i.e., rational expectations) or at least with a learning process leading toward rational expectations. But there are other equilibrium concepts that preserve market clearing, but without imposing, what seems to me, the unreasonable condition of rational expectations and (near) optimality.

In particular, there is the Hicksian concept of a temporary equilibrium (inspired by Hayek’s discussion of intertemporal equilibrium) which allows for inconsistent expectations by economic agents, but assumes market clearing based on supply and demand schedules reflecting those inconsistent expectations. Nearly 40 years ago, Earl Thompson was able to deploy that equilibrium concept to derive a sub-optimal temporary equilibrium with Keynesian unemployment and a role for countercyclical monetary policy in minimizing inefficient unemployment. I have summarized and discussed Thompson’s model previously in some previous posts (here, here, here, and here), and I hope to do a few more in the future. The model is hardly the last word, but it might at least serve as a starting point for thinking seriously about the possibility that not every state of the economy is an optimal equilibrium state, but without abandoning market clearing as an analytical tool.


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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