Posts Tagged 'Milton Friedman'

Paul Romer on Modern Macroeconomics, Or, the “All Models Are False” Dodge

Paul Romer has been engaged for some time in a worthy campaign against the travesty of modern macroeconomics. A little over a year ago I commented favorably about Romer’s takedown of Robert Lucas, but I also defended George Stigler against what I thought was an unfair attempt by Romer to identify George Stigler as an inspiration and role model for Lucas’s transgressions. Now just a week ago, a paper based on Romer’s Commons Memorial Lecture to the Omicron Delta Epsilon Society, has become just about the hottest item in the econ-blogosophere, even drawing the attention of Daniel Drezner in the Washington Post.

I have already written critically about modern macroeconomics in my five years of blogging, and here are some links to previous posts (link, link, link, link). It’s good to see that Romer is continuing to voice his criticisms, and that they are gaining a lot of attention. But the macroeconomic hierarchy is used to criticism, and has its standard responses to criticism, which are being dutifully deployed by defenders of the powers that be.

Romer’s most effective rhetorical strategy is to point out that the RBC core of modern DSGE models posit unobservable taste and technology shocks to account for fluctuations in the economic time series, but that these taste and technology shocks are themselves simply inferred from the fluctuations in the times-series data, so that the entire structure of modern macroeconometrics is little more than an elaborate and sophisticated exercise in question-begging.

In this post, I just want to highlight one of the favorite catch-phrases of modern macroeconomics which serves as a kind of default excuse and self-justification for the rampant empirical failures of modern macroeconomics (documented by Lipsey and Carlaw as I showed in this post). When confronted by evidence that the predictions of their models are wrong, the standard and almost comically self-confident response of the modern macroeconomists is: All models are false. By which the modern macroeconomists apparently mean something like: “And if they are all false anyway, you can’t hold us accountable, because any model can be proven wrong. What really matters is that our models, being microfounded, are not subject to the Lucas Critique, and since all other models than ours are not micro-founded, and, therefore, being subject to the Lucas Critique, they are simply unworthy of consideration. This is what I have called methodological arrogance. That response is simply not true, because the Lucas Critique applies even to micro-founded models, those models being strictly valid only in equilibrium settings and being unable to predict the adjustment of economies in the transition between equilibrium states. All models are subject to the Lucas Critique.

Here is Romer’s take:

In response to the observation that the shocks are imaginary, a standard defense invokes Milton Friedman’s (1953) methodological assertion from unnamed authority that “the more significant the theory, the more unrealistic the assumptions (p.14).” More recently, “all models are false” seems to have become the universal hand-wave for dismissing any fact that does not conform to the model that is the current favorite.

Friedman’s methodological assertion would have been correct had Friedman substituted “simple” for “unrealistic.” Sometimes simplifications are unrealistic, but they don’t have to be. A simplification is a generalization of something complicated. By simplifying, we can transform a problem that had been too complex to handle into a problem more easily analyzed. But such simplifications aren’t necessarily unrealistic. To say that all models are false is simply a dodge to avoid having to account for failure. The excuse of course is that all those other models are subject to the Lucas Critique, so my model wins. But your model is subject to the Lucas Critique even though you claim it’s not, so even according to the rules you have arbitrarily laid down, you don’t win.

So I was just curious about where the little phrase “all models are false” came from. I was expecting that Karl Popper might have said it, in which case to use the phrase as a defense mechanism against empirical refutation would have been a particularly fraudulent tactic, because it would have been a perversion of Popper’s methodological stance, which was to force our theoretical constructs to face up to, not to insulate it from, empirical testing. But when I googled “all theories are false” what I found was not Popper, but the British statistician, G. E. P. Box who wrote in his paper “Science and Statistics” based on his R. A. Fisher Memorial Lecture to the American Statistical Association: “All models are wrong.” Here’s the exact quote:

Since all models are wrong the scientist cannot obtain a “correct” one by excessive elaboration. On the contrary following William of Occam he should seek an economical description of natural phenomena. Just as the ability to devise simple but evocative models is the signature of the great scientist so overelaboration and overparameterization is often the mark of mediocrity.

Since all models are wrong the scientist must be alert to what is importantly wrong. It is inappropriate to be concerned about mice when there are tigers abroad. Pure mathematics is concerned with propositions like “given that A is true, does B necessarily follow?” Since the statement is a conditional one, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the truth of A nor of the consequences B in relation to real life. The pure mathematician, acting in that capacity, need not, and perhaps should not, have any contact with practical matters at all.

In applying mathematics to subjects such as physics or statistics we make tentative assumptions about the real world which we know are false but which we believe may be useful nonetheless. The physicist knows that particles have mass and yet certain results, approximating what really happens, may be derived from the assumption that they do not. Equally, the statistician knows, for example, that in nature there never was a normal distribution, there never was a straight line, yet with normal and linear assumptions, known to be false, he can often derive results which match, to a useful approximation, those found in the real world. It follows that, although rigorous derivation of logical consequences is of great importance to statistics, such derivations are necessarily encapsulated in the knowledge that premise, and hence consequence, do not describe natural truth.

It follows that we cannot know that any statistical technique we develop is useful unless we use it. Major advances in science and in the science of statistics in particular, usually occur, therefore, as the result of the theory-practice iteration.

One of the most annoying conceits of modern macroeconomists is the constant self-congratulatory references to themselves as scientists because of their ostentatious use of axiomatic reasoning, formal proofs, and higher mathematical techniques. The tiresome self-congratulation might get toned down ever so slightly if they bothered to read and take to heart Box’s lecture.

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Sumner on the Demand for Money, Interest Rates and Barsky and Summers

Scott Sumner had two outstanding posts a couple of weeks ago (here and here) discussing the relationship between interest rates and NGDP, making a number of important points, which I largely agree with, even though I have some (mostly semantic) quibbles about the details. I especially liked how in the second post he applied the analysis of Robert Barsky and Larry Summers in their article about Gibson’s Paradox under the gold standard to recent monetary experience. The two posts are so good and cover such a wide range of topics that the best way for me to address them is by cutting and pasting relevant passages and commenting on them.

Scott begins with the equation of exchange MV = PY. I personally prefer the Cambridge version (M = kPY) where k stands for the fraction of income that people hold as cash, thereby making it clear that the relevant concept is how much money want to hold, not that mysterious metaphysical concept called the velocity of circulation V (= 1/k). With attention focused on the decision about how much money to hold, it is natural to think of the rate of interest as the opportunity cost of holding non-interest-bearing cash balances. When the rate of interest rate rises, the desired holdings of non-interest-bearing cash tend to fall; in other words k falls (and V rises). With unchanged M, the equation is satisfied only if PY increases. So the notion that a reduction in interest rates, in and of itself, is expansionary is based on a misunderstanding. An increase in the amount of money demanded is always contractionary. A reduction in interest rates increases the amount of money demanded (if money is non-interest-bearing). A reduction in interest rates is therefore contractionary (all else equal).

Scott suggests some reasons why this basic relationship seems paradoxical.

Sometimes, not always, reductions in interest rates are caused by an increase in the monetary base. (This was not the case in late 2007 and early 2008, but it is the case on some occasions.) When there is an expansionary monetary policy, specifically an exogenous increase in M, then when interest rates fall, V tends to fall by less than M rises. So the policy as a whole causes NGDP to rise, even as the specific impact of lower interest rates is to cause NGDP to fall.

To this I would add that, as discussed in my recent posts about Keynes and Fisher, Keynes in the General Theory seemed to be advancing a purely monetary theory of the rate of interest. If Keynes meant that the rate of interest is determined exclusively by monetary factors, then a falling rate of interest is a sure sign of an excess supply of money. Of course in the Hicksian world of IS-LM, the rate of interest is simultaneously determined by both equilibrium in the money market and an equilibrium rate of total spending, but Keynes seems to have had trouble with the notion that the rate of interest could be simultaneously determined by not one, but two, equilibrium conditions.

Another problem is the Keynesian model, which hopelessly confuses the transmission mechanism. Any Keynesian model with currency that says low interest rates are expansionary is flat out wrong.

But if Keynes believed that the rate of interest is exclusively determined by money demand and money supply, then the only possible cause of a low or falling interest rate is the state of the money market, the supply side of which is always under the control of the monetary authority. Or stated differently, in the Keynesian model, the money-supply function is perfectly elastic at the target rate of interest, so that the monetary authority supplies whatever amount of money is demanded at that rate of interest. I disagree with the underlying view of what determines the rate of interest, but given that theory of the rate of interest, the model is not incoherent and doesn’t confuse the transmission mechanism.

That’s probably why economists were so confused by 2008. Many people confuse aggregate demand with consumption. Thus they think low rates encourage people to “spend” and that this n somehow boosts AD and NGDP. But it doesn’t, at least not in the way they assume. If by “spend” you mean higher velocity, then yes, spending more boosts NGDP. But we’ve already seen that lower interest rates don’t boost velocity, rather they lower velocity.

But, remember that Keynes believed that the interest rate can be reduced only by increasing the quantity of money, which nullifies the contractionary effect of a reduced interest rate.

Even worse, some assume that “spending” is the same as consumption, hence if low rates encourage people to save less and consume more, then AD will rise. This is reasoning from a price change on steroids! When you don’t spend you save, and saving goes into investment, which is also part of GDP.

But this is reasoning from an accounting identity. The question is what happens if people try to save. The Keynesian argument is that the attempt to save will be self-defeating; instead of increased saving, there is reduced income. Both scenarios are consistent with the accounting identity. The question is which causal mechanism is operating? Does an attempt to increase saving cause investment to increase, or does it cause income to go down? Seemingly aware of the alternative scenario, Scott continues:

Now here’s were amateur Keynesians get hopelessly confused. They recall reading something about the paradox of thrift, about planned vs. actual saving, about the fact that an attempt to save more might depress NGDP, and that in the end people may fail to save more, and instead NGDP will fall. This is possible, but even if true it has no bearing on my claim that low rates are contractionary.

Just so. But there is not necessarily any confusion; the issue may be just a difference in how monetary policy is implemented. You can think of the monetary authority as having a choice in setting its policy in terms of the quantity of the monetary base, or in terms of an interest-rate target. Scott characterizes monetary policy in terms of the base, allowing the interest rate to adjust; Keynesians characterize monetary policy in terms of an interest-rate target, allowing the monetary base to adjust. The underlying analysis should not depend on how policy is characterized. I think that this is borne out by Scott’s next paragraph, which is consistent with a policy choice on the part of the Keynesian monetary authority to raise interest rates as needed to curb aggregate demand when aggregate demand is excessive.

To see the problem with this analysis, consider the Keynesian explanations for increases in AD. One theory is that animal spirits propel businesses to invest more. Another is that consumer optimism propels consumers to spend more. Another is that fiscal policy becomes more expansionary, boosting the budget deficit. What do all three of these shocks have in common? In all three cases the shock leads to higher interest rates. (Use the S&I diagram to show this.) Yes, in all three cases the higher interest rates boost velocity, and hence ceteris paribus (i.e. fixed monetary base) the higher V leads to more NGDP. But that’s not an example of low rates boosting AD, it’s an example of some factor boosting AD, and also raising interest rates.

In the Keynesian terminology, the shocks do lead to higher rates, but only because excessive aggregate demand, caused by animal spirits, consumer optimism, or government budget deficits, has to be curbed by interest-rate increases. The ceteris paribus assumption is ambiguous; it can be interpreted to mean holding the monetary base constant or holding the interest-rate target constant. I don’t often cite Milton Friedman as an authority, but one of his early classic papers was “The Marshallian Demand Curve” in which he pointed out that there is an ambiguity in what is held constant along the demand curve: prices of other goods or real income. You can hold only one of the two constant, not both, and you get a different demand curve depending on which ceteris paribus assumption you make. So the upshot of my commentary here is that, although Scott is right to point out that the standard reasoning about how a change in interest rates affects NGDP implicitly assumes that the quantity of money is changing, that valid point doesn’t refute the standard reasoning. There is an inherent ambiguity in specifying what is actually held constant in any ceteris paribus exercise. It’s good to make these ambiguities explicit, and there might be good reasons to prefer one ceteris paribus assumption over another, but a ceteris paribus assumption isn’t a sufficient basis for rejecting a model.

Now just to be clear, I agree with Scott that, as a matter of positive economics, the interest rate is not fully under the control of the monetary authority. And one reason that it’s not  is that the rate of interest is embedded in the entire price system, not just a particular short-term rate that the central bank may be able to control. So I don’t accept the basic Keynesian premise that monetary authority can always make the rate of interest whatever it wants it to be, though the monetary authority probably does have some control over short-term rates.

Scott also provides an analysis of the effects of interest on reserves, and he is absolutely correct to point out that paying interest on reserves is deflationary.

I will just note that near the end of his post, Scott makes a comment about living “in a Ratex world.” WADR, I don’t think that ratex is at all descriptive of reality, but I will save that discussion for another time.

Scott followed up the post about the contractionary effects of low interest rates with a post about the 1988 Barsky and Summers paper.

Barsky and Summers . . . claim that the “Gibson Paradox” is caused by the fact that low interest rates are deflationary under the gold standard, and that causation runs from falling interest rates to deflation. Note that there was no NGDP data for this period, so they use the price level rather than NGDP as their nominal indicator. But their basic argument is identical to mine.

The Gibson Paradox referred to the tendency of prices and interest rates to be highly correlated under the gold standard. Initially some people thought this was due to the Fisher effect, but it turns out that prices were roughly a random walk under the gold standard, and hence the expected rate of inflation was close to zero. So the actual correlation was between prices and both real and nominal interest rates. Nonetheless, the nominal interest rate is the key causal variable in their model, even though changes in that variable are mostly due to changes in the real interest rate.

Since gold is a durable good with a fixed price, the nominal interest rate is the opportunity cost of holding that good. A lower nominal rate tends to increase the demand for gold, for both monetary and non-monetary purposes.  And an increased demand for gold is deflationary (and also reduces NGDP.)

Very insightful on Scott’s part to see the connection between the Barsky and Summers analysis and the standard theory of the demand for money. I had previously thought about the Barsky and Summers discussion simply as a present-value problem. The present value of any durable asset, generating a given expected flow of future services, must vary inversely with the interest rate at which those future services are discounted. Since the future price level under the gold standard was expected to be roughly stable, any change in nominal interest rates implied a change in real interest rates. The value of gold, like other durable assets, varied inversely with nominal interest rate. But with the nominal value of gold fixed by the gold standard, changes in the value of gold implied a change in the price level, an increased value of gold being deflationary and a decreased value of gold inflationary. Scott rightly observes that the same idea can be expressed in the language of monetary theory by thinking of the nominal interest rate as the cost of holding any asset, so that a reduction in the nominal interest rate has to increase the demand to own assets, because reducing the cost of holding an asset increases the demand to own it, thereby raising its value in exchange, provided that current output of the asset is small relative to the total stock.

However, the present-value approach does have an advantage over the opportunity-cost approach, because the present-value approach relates the value of gold or money to the entire term structure of interest rates, while the opportunity-cost approach can only handle a single interest rate – presumably the short-term rate – that is relevant to the decision to hold money at any given moment in time. In simple models of the IS-LM ilk, the only interest rate under consideration is the short-term rate, or the term-structure is assumed to have a fixed shape so that all interest rates are equally affected by, or along with, any change in the short-term rate. The latter assumption of course is clearly unrealistic, though Keynes made it without a second thought. However, in his Century of Bank Rate, Hawtrey showed that between 1844 and 1938, when the gold standard was in effect in Britain (except 1914-25 and 1931-38) short-term rates and long-term rates often moved by significantly different magnitudes and even in opposite directions.

Scott makes a further interesting observation:

The puzzle of why the economy does poorly when interest rates fall (such as during 2007-09) is in principle just as interesting as the one Barsky and Summers looked at. Just as gold was the medium of account during the gold standard, base money is currently the medium of account. And just as causation went from falling interest rates to higher demand for gold to deflation under the gold standard, causation went from falling interest rates to higher demand for base money to recession in 2007-08.

There is something to this point, but I think Scott may be making too much of it. Falling interest rates in 2007 may have caused the demand for money to increase, but other factors were also important in causing contraction. The problem in 2008 was that the real rate of interest was falling, while the Fed, fixated on commodity (especially energy) prices, kept interest rates too high given the rapidly deteriorating economy. With expected yields from holding real assets falling, the Fed, by not cutting interest rates any further between April and October of 2008, precipitated a financial crisis once inflationary expectations started collapsing in August 2008, the expected yield from holding money dominating the expected yield from holding real assets, bringing about a pathological Fisher effect in which asset values had to collapse for the yields from holding money and from holding assets to be equalized.

Under the gold standard, the value of gold was actually sensitive to two separate interest-rate effects – one reflected in the short-term rate and one reflected in the long-term rate. The latter effect is the one focused on by Barsky and Summers, though they also performed some tests on the short-term rate. However, it was through the short-term rate that the central bank, in particular the Bank of England, the dominant central bank during in the pre-World War I era, manifested its demand for gold reserves, raising the short-term rate when it was trying to accumulate gold and reducing the short-term rate when it was willing to reduce its reserve holdings. Barsky and Summers found the long-term rate to be more highly correlated with the price level than the short-term rate. I conjecture that the reason for that result is that the long-term rate is what captures the theoretical inverse relationship between the interest rate and the value of a durable asset, while the short-term rate would be negatively correlated with the value of gold when (as is usually the case) it moves together with the long-term rate but may sometimes be positively correlated with the value of gold (when the central bank is trying to accumulate gold) and thereby tightening the world market for gold. I don’t know if Barsky and Summers ran regressions using both long-term and short-term rates, but using both long-term and short-term rates in the same regression might have allowed them to find evidence of both effects in the data.

PS I have been too busy and too distracted of late to keep up with comments on earlier posts. Sorry for not responding promptly. In case anyone is still interested, I hope to respond to comments over the next few days, and to post and respond more regularly than I have been doing for the past few weeks.

The Great, but Misguided, Benjamin Strong Goes Astray in 1928

In making yet further revisions to our paper on Hawtrey and Cassel, Ron Batchelder and I keep finding interesting new material that sheds new light on the thinking behind the policies that led to the Great Depression. Recently I have been looking at the digital archive of Benjamin Strong’s papers held at the Federal Reserve Bank. Benjamin Strong was perhaps the greatest central banker who ever lived. Milton Friedman, Charles Kindleberger, Irving Fisher, and Ralph Hawtrey – and probably others as well — all believed that if Strong, Governor of the New York Federal Reserve Bank from 1914 to 1928 and effectively the sole policy maker for the entire system, had not died in 1928, the Great Depression would have been avoided entirely or, at least, would have been far less severe and long-lasting. My own view had been that Strong had generally understood the argument of Hawtrey and Cassel about the importance of economizing on gold, and, faced with the insane policy of the Bank of France, would have accommodated that policy by allowing an outflow of gold from the immense US holdings, rather than raise interest rates and induce an inflow of gold into the US in 1929, as happened under his successor, George Harrison.

Having spent some time browsing through the papers, I am sorry — because Strong’s truly remarkable qualities are evident in his papers — to say that the papers also show to my surprise and disappointment that Strong was very far from being a disciple of Hawtrey or Cassel or of any economist, and he seems to have been entirely unconcerned in 1928 about the policy of the Bank of France or the prospect of a deflationary run-up in the value of gold even though his friend Montague Norman, Governor of the Bank of England, was beginning to show some nervousness about “a scramble for gold,” while other observers were warning of a deflationary collapse. I must admit that, at least one reason for my surprise is that I had naively accepted the charges made by various Austrians – most notably Murray Rothbard – that Strong was a money manager who had bought into the dangerous theories of people like Irving Fisher, Ralph Hawtrey and J. M. Keynes that central bankers should manipulate their currencies to stabilize the price level. The papers I have seen show that, far from being a money manager and a price-level stabilizer, Strong expressed strong reservations about policies for stabilizing the price level, and was more in sympathy with the old-fashioned gold standard than with the gold-exchange standard — the paradigm promoted by Hawtrey and Cassel and endorsed at the Genoa Conference of 1922. Rothbard’s selective quotation from the memorandum summarizing Strong’s 1928 conversation with Sir Arthur Salter, which I will discuss below, gives a very inaccurate impression of Strong’s position on money management.

Here are a few of the documents that caught my eye.

On November 28 1927, Montague Norman wrote Strong about their planned meeting in January at Algeciras, Spain. Norman makes the following suggestion:

Perhaps the chief uncertainty or danger which confronts Central Bankers on this side of the Atlantic over the next half dozen years is the purchasing power of gold and the general price level. If not an immediate, it is a very serious question and has been too little considered up to the present. Cassel, as you will remember, has held up his warning finger on many occasions against the dangers of a continuing fall in the price level and the Conference at Genoa as you will remember, suggested that the danger could be met or prevented, by a more general use of the “Gold Exchange Standard”.

This is a very abstruse and complicated problem which personally I do not pretend to understand, the more so as it is based on somewhat uncertain statistics. But I rely for information from the outside about such a subject as this not, as you might suppose, on McKenna or Keynes, but on Sir Henry Strakosch. I am not sure if you know him: Austrian origin: many years in Johannesburg: 20 years in this country: a student of economics: a gold producer with general financial interests: perhaps the main stay in setting up the South African Reserve Bank: a member of the Financial Committee of the League and of the Indian Currency Commission: full of public spirit, genial and helpful . . . and so forth. I have probably told you that if I had been a Dictator he would have been a Director here years ago.

This is a problem to which Strackosch has given much study and it alarms him. He would say that none of us are paying sufficient attention to the possibility of a future fall in prices or are taking precautions to prepare any remedy such as was suggested at Genoa, namely smaller gold reserves through the Gold Exchange Standard, and that you, in the long run, will feel any trouble just as much as the rest of the Central Bankers will feel it.

My suggestion therefore is that it might be helpful if I could persuade Strakoosch too to come to Algeciras for a week: his visit could be quite casual and you would not be committed to any intrigue with him.

I gather from the tone of this letter and from other indications that the demands by the French to convert their foreign exchange to gold were already being made on the Bank of England and were causing some degree of consternation in London, which is why Norman was hoping that Strakosch might persuade Strong that something ought to be done to get the French to moderate their demands on the Bank of England to convert claims on sterling into gold. In the event, Strong met with Strakosch in December (probably in New York, not in Algeciras, without the presence of Norman). Not long thereafter Strong’s health deteriorated, and he took an extended leave from his duties at the bank. On March 27, 1928 Strong sent a letter to Norman outlining the main points of his conversation with Strakosch:

What [Strakosch] told me leads me to believe that he holds the following views:

  • That there is an impending shortage of monetary gold.
  • That there is certain to be a decline in the production by the South African mines.
  • That in consequence there will be a competition for gold between banks of issue which will lead to high discount rates, contracting credit and falling world commodity prices.
  • That Europe is so burdened with debt as to make such a development calamitous, possibly bankrupting some nations.
  • That the remedy is an extensive and formal development of the gold exchange standard.

From the above you will doubtless agree with me that Strakosch is a 100% “quantity” theory man, that he holds Cassel’s views in regard to the world’s gold position, and that he is alarmed at the outlook, just as most of the strict quantity theory men are, and rather expects that the banks of issue can do something about it.

Just as an aside, I will note that Strong is here displaying a rather common confusion, mixing up the quantity theory with a theory about the value of money under a gold standard. It’s a confusion that not only laymen, but also economists such as (to pick out a name almost at random) Milton Friedman, are very prone to fall into.

What he tells me is proposed consists of:

  • A study by the Financial Section of the League [of Nations] of the progress of economic recovery in Europe, which, he asserts, has closely followed progress in the resumption of gold payment or its equivalent.
  • A study of the gold problem, apparently in the perspective of the views of Cassel and others.
  • The submission of the results, with possibly some suggestions of a constructive nature, to a meeting of the heads of the banks of issue. He did not disclose whether the meeting would be a belated “Genoa resolution” meeting or something different.

What I told him appeared to shock him, and it was in brief:

  • That I did not share the fears of Cassel and others as to a gold shortage.
  • That I did not think that the quantity theory of prices, such for instance as Fisher has elaborate, “reduction ad absurdum,” was always dependable if unadulterated!
  • That I thought the gold exchange standard as now developing was hazardous in the extreme if allowed to proceed very much further, because of the duplication of bank liabilities upon the same gold.
  • That I much preferred to see the central banks build up their actual gold metal reserves in their own hands to something like orthodox proportions, and adopt their own monetary and credit policy and execute it themselves.
  • That I thought a meeting of the banks of issue in the immediate future to discuss the particular matter would be inappropriate and premature, until the vicissitudes of the Dawes Plan had developed further.
  • That any formal meeting of the banks of issue, if and when called, should originate among themselves rather than through the League, that the Genoa resolution was certainly no longer operative, and that such formal meeting should confine itself very specifically at the outset first to developing a sound basis of information, and second, to devising improvement in technique in gold practice

I am not at all sure that any formal meeting should be held before another year has elapsed. If it is held within a year or after a year, I am quite certain that it I attended it I could not do so helpfully if it tacitly implied acceptance of the principles set out in the Genoa resolution.

Stratosch is a fine fellow: I like him immensely, but I would feel reluctant to join in discussions where there was likelihood that the views so strongly advocated by Fisher, Cassel, Keynes, Commons, and others would seem likely to prevail. I would be willing at the proper time, if objection were not raised at home, to attend a conference of the banks of issue, if we could agree at the outset upon a simple platform, i.e., that gold is an effective measure of value and medium of exchange. If these two principles are extended, as seems to be in Stratosch’s mind, to mean that a manipulation of gold and credit can be employed as a regulator of prices at all times and under all circumstances, then I fear fundamental differences are inescapable.

And here is a third document in a similar vein that is also worth looking at. It is a memorandum written by O. E. Moore (a member of Strong’s staff at the New York Fed) providing a detailed account of the May 25, 1928 conversation between Strong and Sir Arthur Salter, then head of the economic and financial section of the League of Nations, who came to New York to ask for Strong’s cooperation in calling a new conference (already hinted at by Strakosch in his December conversation with Strong) with a view toward limiting the international demand for gold. Salter handed Strong a copy of a report by a committee of the League of Nations warning of the dangers of a steep increase in the value of gold because of increasing demand and a declining production.

Strong responded with a historical rendition of international monetary developments since the end of World War I, pointing out that even before the war was over he had been convinced of the need for cooperation among the world’s central banks, but then adding that he had been opposed to the recommendation of the 1922 Genoa Conference (largely drafted by Hawtrey and Cassel).

Governor Strong had been opposed from the start to the conclusions reached at the Genoa Conference. So far as he was aware, no one had ever been able to show any proof that there was a world shortage of gold or that there was likely to be any such shortage in the near future. . . . He was also opposed to the permanent operation of the gold exchange standard as outlined by the Genoa Conference, because it would mean by virtue of the extensive credits which the exchange standard countries would be holding in the gold centers, that they would be taking away from each of those two centers the control of their own money markets. This was an impossible thing for the Federal Reserve System to accept, so far as the American market was concerned, and in fact it was out of the question for any important country, it seemed to him, to give up entirely the direction of its own market. . . .

As a further aside, I will just observe that Strong’s objection to the gold exchange standard, namely that it permits an indefinite expansion of the money supply, a given base of gold reserves being able to support an unlimited expansion of the quantity of money, is simply wrong as a matter of theory. A country running a balance-of-payments deficit under a gold-exchange standard would be no less subject to the constraint of an external drain, even if it is holding reserves only in the form of instruments convertible into gold rather than actual gold, than it would be if it were operating under a gold standard holding reserves in gold.

Although Strong was emphatic that he could not agree to participate in any conference in which the policies and actions of the US could be determined by the views of other countries, he was open to a purely fact-finding commission to ascertain what the total world gold reserves were and how those were distributed among the different official reserve holding institutions. He also added this interesting caveat:

Governor Strong added that, in his estimation, it was very important that the men who undertook to find the answers to these questions should not be mere theorists who would take issue on controversial points, and that it would be most unfortunate if the report of such a commission should result in giving color to the views of men like Keynes, Cassel, and Fisher regarding an impending world shortage of gold and the necessity of stabilizing the price level. . . .

Governor Strong mentioned that one thing which had made him more wary than ever of the policies advocated by these men was that when Professor Fisher wrote his book on “Stabilizing the Dollar”, he had first submitted the manuscript to him (Governor Strong) and that the proposal made in that original manuscript was to adjust the gold content of the dollar as often as once a week, which in his opinion showed just how theoretical this group of economists were.

Here Strong was displaying the condescending attitude toward academic theorizing characteristic of men of affairs, especially characteristic of brilliant and self-taught men of affairs. Whether such condescension is justified is a question for which there is no general answer. However, it is clear to me that Strong did not have an accurate picture of what was happening in 1928 and what dangers were lying ahead of him and the world in the last few months of his life. So the confidence of Friedman, Kindelberger, Fisher, and Hawtrey in Strong’s surpassing judgment does not seem to me to rest on any evidence that Strong actually understood the situation in 1928 and certainly not that he knew what to do about it. On the contrary he was committed to a policy that was leading to disaster, or at least, was not going to avoid disaster. The most that can be said is that he was at least informed about the dangers, and if he had lived long enough to observe that the dangers about which he had been warned were coming to pass, he would have had the wit and the good sense and the courage to change his mind and take the actions that might have avoided catastrophe. But that possibility is just a possibility, and we can hardly be sure that, in the counterfactual universe in which Strong does not die in 1928, the Great Depression never happened.

CAUTION Accounting Identity Handle with Care

About three years ago, early in my blogging career, I wrote a series of blog posts (most or all aimed at Scott Sumner) criticizing him for an argument in a blog post about the inefficacy of fiscal stimulus that relied on the definitional equality of savings and investment. Here’s the statement I found objectionable.

Wren-Lewis seems to be . . . making a simple logical error (which is common among Keynesians.)  He equates “spending” with “consumption.”  But the part of income not “spent” is saved, which means it’s spent on investment projects.  Remember that S=I, indeed saving is defined as the resources put into investment projects.  So the tax on consumers will reduce their ability to save and invest.

I’m not going to quote any further from that discussion. If you’re interested here are links to the posts that I wrote (here, here, here, here, here, and this one in which I made an argument so obviously false that, in my embarrassment, I felt like giving up blogging, and this one in which I managed to undo, at least partially, the damage of the self-inflicted wound). But, probably out of exhaustion, that discussion came to an inconclusive end, and Scott and I went on with our lives with no hard feelings.

Well, in a recent post, Scott has again invoked the savings-equals-investment identity, so I am going to have to lodge another protest, even though I thought that, aside from his unfortunate reference to the savings-investment identity, his post made a lot of sense. So I am going to raise the issue one more time – we have had three years to get over our last discussion – hoping that I can now convince Scott to stop using accounting identities to make causal statements.

Scott begins by discussing the simplest version of the income-expenditure model (aka the Keynesian cross or 45-degree model), while treating it, as did Keynes, as if it were interchangeable with the national-accounting identities:

In the standard national income accounting, gross domestic income equals gross domestic output.  In the simplest model of all (with no government or trade) you have the following identity:

NGDI = C + S = C + I = NGDP  (it also applies to RGDI and RGDP)

Because these two variables are identical, any model that explains one will, ipso facto, explain the other.

There is a lot of ground to cover in these few lines. First of all, there are actually three relevant variables — income, output, and expenditure – not just two. Second aggregate income is not really the same thing as consumption and savings. Aggregate income is constituted by the aggregate earnings of all factors of production. However, an accounting identity assures us that all factor incomes accruing to factors of production, which are all ultimately owned by the households providing services to business firms, must be disposed of either by being spent on consumption or by being saved. Aggregate expenditure is different from aggregate income; expenditure is constituted not by the earnings of households, but by their spending on consumption and by the spending of businesses on investment, the purchase of durable equipment not physically embodied in output sold to households or other businesses. Aggregate expenditure is very close to but not identical with aggregate output. They can differ, because not all output is sold, some of it being retained within the firm as work in progress or as inventory. However, in an equilibrium situation in which variables were unchanging, aggregate income, expenditure and output would all be equal.

The equality of these three variables can be thought of as a condition of macroeconomic equilibrium. When a macroeconomic system is not in equilibrium, aggregate factor incomes are not equal to aggregate expenditure or to aggregate output. The inequality between factor incomes and expenditure induces further adjustments in spending and earnings ultimately leading to an equilibrium in which equality between those variables is restored.

So what Scott should have said is that because NGDI and NGDP are equal in equilibrium, any model that explains one will, ipso facto, explain the other, because the equality between the two is the condition for finding a solution to the model. It therefore follows that savings and investment are absolutely not the same thing. Savings is the portion of household earnings from providing factor services that is not spent on consumption. Investment is what business firms spend on plant and equipment. The two magnitudes are obviously not the same, and they do not have to be equal. However, equality between savings and investment is, like the equality between income and expenditure, a condition for macroeconomic equilibrium. In an economy not in equilibrium, savings does not equal investment. But the inequality between savings and investment induces adjustments that, in a stable macroeconomic system, move the economy toward equilibrium. Back to Scott:

Nonetheless, I think if we focus on NGDI we are more likely to be able to think clearly about macro issues.  Consider the recent comment left by Doug:

Regarding Investment, changes in private investment are the single biggest dynamic in the business cycle. While I may be 1/4 the size of C in terms of the contribution to spending, it is 6x more volatile. The economy doesn’t slip into recession because of a fluctuation in Consumption. Changes in Investment drive AD.

This is probably how most people look at things, but in my view it’s highly misleading. Monetary policy drives AD, and AD drives investment. This is easier to explain if we think in terms of NGDI, not NGDP.  Tight money reduces NGDI.  That means the sum of nominal consumption and nominal saving must fall, by the amount that NGDI declines.  What about real income?  If wages are sticky, then as NGDI declines, hours worked will fall, and real income will decline.

So far we have no reason to assume that C or S will fall at a different rate than NGDI. But if real income falls for temporary reasons (the business cycle), then the public will typically smooth consumption.  Thus if NGDP falls by 4%, consumption might fall by 2% while saving might fall by something like 10%.  This is a prediction of the permanent income hypothesis.  And of course if saving falls much more sharply than gross income, investment will also decline sharply, because savings is exactly equal to investment.

First, I observe that consumption smoothing and the permanent-income hypothesis are irrelevant to the discussion, because Scott does not explain where any of his hypothetical numbers come from or how they are related. Based on commenter Doug’s suggestion that savings is ¼ the size of consumption, one could surmise that a 4% reduction in NGDP and a 2% reduction in consumption imply a marginal propensity to consumer of 0.4. Suppose that consumption did not change at all (consumption smoothing to the max), then savings, bearing the entire burden of adjustment, would fall through the floor. What would that imply for the new equilibrium of NGDI? In the standard Keynesian model, a zero marginal propensity to consume would imply a smaller effect on NGDP from a given shock than you get with an MPC of 0.4.

It seems to me that Scott is simply positing numbers and performing calculations independently of any model, and then tells us that the numbers have to to be what he says they are because of an accounting identity. That does not seem like an assertion not an argument, or, maybe like reasoning from a price change. Scott is trying to make an inference about how the world operates from an accounting identity between two magnitudes. The problem is that the two magnitudes are variables in an economic model, and their values are determined by the interaction of all the variables in the model. Just because you can solve the model mathematically by using the equality of two variables as an equilibrium condition does not entitle you to posit a change in one and then conclude that the other must change by the same amount. You have to show how the numbers you have posited are derived from the model.

If two variables are really identical, rather than just being equal in equilibrium, then they are literally the same thing, and you can’t draw any inference about the real world from the fact that they are equal, there being no possible state of the world in which they are not equal. It is only because savings and investment are not the same thing, and because in some states of the world they are not equal, that we can make any empirical statement about what the world is like when savings and investment are equal. Back to Scott:

This is where Keynesian economics has caused endless confusion.  Keynesians don’t deny that (ex post) less saving leads to less investment, but they think this claim is misleading, because (they claim) an attempt by the public to save less will boost NGDP, and this will lead to more investment (and more realized saving.)  In their model when the public attempts to save less (ex ante), it may well end up saving more (ex post.)

I agree that Keynesian economics has caused a lot of confusion about savings and investment, largely because Keynes, who, as a philosopher and a mathematician, should have known better, tied himself into knots by insisting that savings and investment are identical, while at the same time saying that their equality was brought about, not by variations in the rate of interest, but by variations in income. Hawtrey, Robertson, and Haberler, among others, pointed out the confusion, but Keynes never seemed to grasp the point. Textbook treatments of national-income accounting and the simple Keynesian cross still don’t seem to have figured this out. But despite his disdain for Keynesian economics, Scott still has to figure it out, too. The best place to start is Richard Lipsey’s classic article “The Foundations of the Theory of National Income: An Analysis of Some Fundamental Errors” (a gated link is available here).

Scott begins by sayings that Keynesians don’t deny that (ex post) less saving leads to less investment. I don’t understand that assertion at all; Keynesians believe that a desired increase in savings, if desired savings exceeded investment, leads to a decrease in income that reduces saving. But the abortive attempt to increase savings has no effect on investment unless you posit an investment function (AKA an accelerator) that includes income as an independent variable. The accelerator was later added to the basic Keynesian model Hicks and others in order to generate cyclical fluctuations in income and employment, but non-Keynesians like Ralph Hawtrey had discussed the accelerator model long before Keynes wrote the General Theory. Scott then contradicts himself in the next sentence by saying that Keynesians believe that by attempting to save less, the public may wind up saving more. Again this result relies on the assumption of an accelerator-type investment function, which is a non-Keynesian assumption. In the basic Keynesian model investment is determined by entrepreneurial expectations. An increase (decrease) in thrift will be self-defeating, because in the new equilibrium income will have fallen (risen) sufficiently to reduce (increase) savings back to the fixed amount of investment entrepreneurs planned to undertake, entrepreneurial expectations being held fixed over the relevant time period.

I more or less agree with the rest of Scott’s post, but Scott seems to have the same knee-jerk negative reaction to Keynes and Keynesians that I have to Friedman and Friedmanians. Maybe it’s time for both of us to lighten up a bit. Anyway in honor of Scott’s recent appoint to the Ralph Hawtrey Chair of Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, I will just close with this quotation from Ralph Hawtrey’s review of the General Theory (chapter 7 of Hawtrey’s Capital and Employment) about Keynes’s treatment of savings and investment as identically equal.

[A]n essential step in [Keynes’s] train of reasoning is the proposition that investment and saving are necessarily equal. That proposition Mr. Keynes never really establishes; he evades the necessity doing so by defining investment and saving as different names for the same thing. He so defines income to be the same thing as output, and therefore, if investment is the excess of output over consumption, and saving is the excess of income over consumption, the two are identical. Identity so established cannot prove anything. The idea that a tendency for investment and saving to become different has to be counteracted by an expansion or contraction of the total of incomes is an absurdity; such a tendency cannot strain the economic system, it can only strain Mr. Keynes’s vocabulary.

Who Sets the Real Rate of Interest?

Understanding economics requires, among other things, understanding the distinction between real and nominal variables. Confusion between real and nominal variables is pervasive, constantly presenting barriers to clear thinking, and snares and delusions for the mentally lazy. In this post, I want to talk about the distinction between the real rate of interest and the nominal rate of interest. That distinction has been recognized for at least a couple of centuries, Henry Thornton having mentioned it early in the nineteenth century. But the importance of the distinction wasn’t really fully understood until Irving Fisher made the distinction between the real and nominal rates of interest a key element of his theory of interest and his theory of money, expressing the relationship in algebraic form — what we now call the Fisher equation. Notation varies, but the Fisher equation can be written more or less as follows:

i = r + dP/dt,

where i is the nominal rate, r is the real rate, and dP/dt is the rate of inflation. It is important to bear in mind that the Fisher equation can be understood in two very different ways. It can either represent an ex ante relationship, with dP/dt referring to expected inflation, or it can represent an ex post relationship, with dP/dt referring to actual inflation.

What I want to discuss in this post is the tacit assumption that usually underlies our understanding, and our application, of the ex ante version of the Fisher equation. There are three distinct variables in the Fisher equation: the real and the nominal rates of interest and the rate of inflation. If we think of the Fisher equation as an ex post relationship, it holds identically, because the unobservable ex post real rate is defined as the difference between the nominal rate and the inflation rate. The ex post, or the realized, real rate has no independent existence; it is merely a semantic convention. But if we consider the more interesting interpretation of the Fisher equation as an ex ante relationship, the real interest rate, though still unobservable, is not just a semantic convention. It becomes the theoretically fundamental interest rate of capital theory — the market rate of intertemporal exchange, reflecting, as Fisher masterfully explained in his canonical renderings of the theory of capital and interest, the “fundamental” forces of time preference and the productivity of capital. Because it is determined by economic “fundamentals,” economists of a certain mindset naturally assume that the real interest rate is independent of monetary forces, except insofar as monetary factors are incorporated in inflation expectations. But if money is neutral, at least in the long run, then the real rate has to be independent of monetary factors, at least in the long run. So in most expositions of the Fisher equation, it is tacitly assumed that the real rate can be treated as a parameter determined, outside the model, by the “fundamentals.” With r determined exogenously, fluctuations in i are correlated with, and reflect, changes in expected inflation.

Now there’s an obvious problem with the Fisher equation, which is that in many, if not most, monetary models, going back to Thornton and Wicksell in the nineteenth century, and to Hawtrey and Keynes in the twentieth, and in today’s modern New Keynesian models, it is precisely by way of changes in its lending rate to the banking system that the central bank controls the rate of inflation. And in this framework, the nominal interest rate is negatively correlated with inflation, not positively correlated, as implied by the usual understanding of the Fisher equation. Raising the nominal interest rate reduces inflation, and reducing the nominal interest rate raises inflation. The conventional resolution of this anomaly is that the change in the nominal interest rate is just temporary, so that, after the economy adjusts to the policy of the central bank, the nominal interest rate also adjusts to a level consistent with the exogenous real rate and to the rate of inflation implied by the policy of the central bank. The Fisher equation is thus an equilibrium relationship, while central-bank policy operates by creating a short-term disequilibrium. But the short-term disequilibrium imposed by the central bank cannot be sustained, because the economy inevitably begins an adjustment process that restores the equilibrium real interest rate, a rate determined by fundamental forces that eventually override any nominal interest rate set by the central bank if that rate is inconsistent with the equilibrium real interest rate and the expected rate of inflation.

It was just this analogy between the powerlessness of the central bank to hold the nominal interest rate below the sum of the exogenously determined equilibrium real rate and the expected rate of inflation that led Milton Friedman to the idea of a “natural rate of unemployment” when he argued that monetary policy could not keep the unemployment rate below the “natural rate ground out by the Walrasian system of general equilibrium equations.” Having been used by Wicksell as a synonym for the Fisherian equilibrium real rate, the term “natural rate” was undoubtedly adopted by Friedman, because monetarily induced deviations between the actual rate of unemployment and the natural rate of unemployment set in motion an adjustment process that restores unemployment to its “natural” level, just as any deviation between the nominal interest rate and the sum of the equilibrium real rate and expected inflation triggers an adjustment process that restores equality between the nominal rate and the sum of the equilibrium real rate and expected inflation.

So, if the ability of the central bank to use its power over the nominal rate to control the real rate of interest is as limited as the conventional interpretation of the Fisher equation suggests, here’s my question: When critics of monetary stimulus accuse the Fed of rigging interest rates, using the Fed’s power to keep interest rates “artificially low,” taking bread out of the mouths of widows, orphans and millionaires, what exactly are they talking about? The Fed has no legal power to set interest rates; it can only announce what interest rate it will lend at, and it can buy and sell assets in the market. It has an advantage because it can create the money with which to buy assets. But if you believe that the Fed cannot reduce the rate of unemployment below the “natural rate of unemployment” by printing money, why would you believe that the Fed can reduce the real rate of interest below the “natural rate of interest” by printing money? Martin Feldstein and the Wall Street Journal believe that the Fed is unable to do one, but perfectly able to do the other. Sorry, but I just don’t get it.

Look at the accompanying chart. It tracks the three variables in the Fisher equation (the nominal interest rate, the real interest rate, and expected inflation) from October 1, 2007 to July 2, 2013. To measure the nominal interest rate, I use the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds; to measure the real interest rate, I use the yield on 10-year TIPS; to measure expected inflation, I use the 10-year breakeven TIPS spread. The yield on the 10-year TIPS is an imperfect measure of the real rate, and the 10-year TIPS spread is an imperfect measure of inflation expectations, especially during financial crises, when the rates on TIPS are distorted by illiquidity in the TIPS market. Those aren’t the only problems with identifying the TIPS yield with the real rate and the TIPS spread with inflation expectations, but those variables usually do provide a decent approximation of what is happening to real rates and to inflation expectations over time.

real_and_nominal_interest_rates

Before getting to the main point, I want to make a couple of preliminary observations about the behavior of the real rate over time. First, notice that the real rate declined steadily, with a few small blips, from October 2007 to March 2008, when the Fed was reducing the Fed Funds target rate from 4.75 to 3% as the economy was sliding into a recession that officially began in December 2007. The Fed reduced the Fed Funds target to 2% at the end of April, but real interest rates had already started climbing in early March, so the failure of the FOMC to reduce the Fed Funds target again till October 2008, three weeks after the onset of the financial crisis, clearly meant that there was at least a passive tightening of monetary policy throughout the second and third quarters, helping create the conditions that precipitated the crisis in September. The rapid reduction in the Fed Funds target from 2% in October to 0.25% in December 2008 brought real interest rates down, but, despite the low Fed Funds rate, a lack of liquidity caused a severe tightening of monetary conditions in early 2009, forcing real interest rates to rise sharply until the Fed announced its first QE program in March 2009.

I won’t go into more detail about ups and downs in the real rate since March 2009. Let’s just focus on the overall trend. From that time forward, what we see is a steady decline in real interest rates from over 2% at the start of the initial QE program till real rates bottomed out in early 2012 at just over -1%. So, over a period of three years, there was a steady 3% decline in real interest rates. This was no temporary phenomenon; it was a sustained trend. I have yet to hear anyone explain how the Fed could have single-handedly produced a steady downward trend in real interest rates by way of monetary expansion over a period of three years. To claim that decline in real interest rates was caused by monetary expansion on the part of the Fed flatly contradicts everything that we think we know about the determination of real interest rates. Maybe what we think we know is all wrong. But if it is, people who blame the Fed for a three-year decline in real interest rates that few reputable economists – and certainly no economists that Fed critics pay any attention to — ever thought was achievable by monetary policy ought to provide an explanation for how the Fed suddenly got new and unimagined powers to determine real interest rates. Until they come forward with such an explanation, Fed critics have a major credibility problem.

So please – pleaseWall Street Journal editorial page, Martin Feldstein, John Taylor, et al., enlighten us. We’re waiting.

PS Of course, there is a perfectly obvious explanation for the three-year long decline in real interest rates, but not one very attractive to critics of QE. Either the equilibrium real interest rate has been falling since 2009, or the equilibrium real interest rate fell before 2009, but nominal rates adjusted slowly to the reduced real rate. The real interest rate might have adjusted more rapidly to the reduced equilibrium rate, but that would have required expected inflation to have risen. What that means is that sometimes it is the real interest rate, not, as is usually assumed, the nominal rate, that adjusts to the expected rate of inflation. My next post will discuss that alternative understanding of the implicit dynamics of the Fisher equation.

Armen Alchian, The Economists’ Economist

The first time that I ever heard of Armen Alchian was when I took introductory economics at UCLA as a freshman, and his book (co-authored with his colleague William R. Allen who was probably responsible for the macro and international chapters) University Economics (the greatest economics textbook ever written) was the required text. I had only just started to get interested in economics, and was still more interested in political philosophy than in economics, but I found myself captivated by what I was reading in Alchian’s textbook, even though I didn’t find the professor teaching the course very exciting. And after 10 weeks (the University of California had switched to a quarter system) of introductory micro, I changed my major to economics. So there is no doubt that I became an economist because the textbook that I was taught from was written by Alchian.

In my four years as an undergraduate at UCLA, I took three classes from Axel Leijonhufvud, two from Ben Klein, two from Bill Allen, and one each from Robert Rooney, Nicos Devletoglou, James Buchanan, Jack Hirshleifer, George Murphy, and Jean Balbach. But Alchian, who in those days was not teaching undergrads, was a looming presence. It became obvious that Alchian was the central figure in the department, the leader and the role model that everyone else looked up to. I would see him occasionally on campus, but was too shy or too much in awe of him to introduce myself to him. One incident that I particularly recall is when, in my junior year, F. A. Hayek visited UCLA in the fall and winter quarters (in the department of philosophy!) teaching an undergraduate course in the philosophy of the social sciences and a graduate seminar on the first draft of Law, Legislation and Liberty. I took Hayek’s course on the philosophy of the social sciences, and audited his graduate seminar, and I occasionally used to visit his office to ask him some questions. I once asked his advice about which graduate programs he would suggest that I apply to. He mentioned two schools, Chicago, of course, and Princeton where his friends Fritz Machlup and Jacob Viner were still teaching, before asking, “but why would you think of going to graduate school anywhere else than UCLA? You will get the best training in economics in the world from Alchian, Hirshleifer and Leijonhufvud.” And so it was, I applied to, and was accepted at, Chicago, but stayed at UCLA.

As a first year graduate student, I took the (three-quarter) microeconomics sequence from Jack Hirshleifer (who in the scholarly hierarachy at UCLA ranked only slightly below Alchian) and the two-quarter macroeconomics sequence from Leijonhufvud. Hirshleifer taught a great course. He was totally prepared, very organized and his lectures were always clear and easy to follow. To do well, you had to sit back listen, review the lecture notes, read through the reading assignments, and do the homework problems. For me at least, with the benefit of four years of UCLA undergraduate training, it was a breeze.

Great as Hirshleifer was as a teacher, I still felt that I was missing out by not having been taught by Alchian. Perhaps Alchian felt that the students who took the microeconomics sequence from Hirshleifer should get some training from him as well, so the next year he taught a graduate seminar in topics in price theory, to give us an opportunity to learn from him how to do economics. You could also see how Alchian operated if you went to a workshop or lecture by a visiting scholar, when Alchian would start to ask questions. He would smile, put his head on his forehead, and say something like, “I just don’t understand that,” and force whoever it was to try to explain the logic by which he had arrived at some conclusion. And Alchian would just keep smiling, explain what the problem was with the answer he got, and ask more questions. Alchian didn’t shout or rant or rave, but if Alchian was questioning you, you were not in a very comfortable position.

So I was more than a bit apprehensive going into Alchian’s seminar. There were all kinds of stories told by graduate students about how tough Alchian could be on his students if they weren’t able to respond adequately when subjected to his questioning in the Socratic style. But the seminar could not have been more enjoyable. There was give and take, but I don’t remember seeing any blood spilled. Perhaps by the time I got to his seminar, Alchian, then about 57, had mellowed a bit, or, maybe, because we had all gone through the graduate microeconomics sequence, he felt that we didn’t require such an intense learning environment. At any rate, the seminar, which met twice a week for an hour and a quarter for 10 weeks, usually involved Alchian picking a story from the newspaper and asking us how to analyze the economics underlying the story. Armed with nothing but a chalkboard and piece of chalk, Alchian would lead us relatively painlessly from confusion to clarity, from obscurity to enlightenment. The key concepts with which to approach any problem were to understand the choices available to those involved, to define the relevant costs, and to understand the constraints under which choices are made, the constraints being determined largely by the delimitation of the property rights under which the resources can be used or exchanged, or, to be more precise, the property rights to use those resources can be exchanged.

Ultimately, the lesson that I learned from Alchian is that, at its best, economic theory is a tool for solving actual real problems, and the nature of the problem ought to dictate the way in which the theory (verbal, numerical, graphical, higher mathematical) is deployed, not the other way around. The goal is not to reach any particular conclusion, but to apply the tools in the best and most authentic way that they can be applied. Alchian did not wear his politics on his sleeve, though it wasn’t too hard to figure out that he was politically conservative with libertarian tendencies. But you never got the feeling that his politics dictated his economic analysis. In many respects, Alchian’s closest disciple was Earl Thompson, who studied under Alchian as an undergraduate, and then, after playing minor-league baseball for a couple of years, going to Harvard for graduate school, eventually coming back to UCLA as an assistant professor where he remained for his entire career. Earl, discarding his youthful libertarianism early on, developed many completely original, often eccentric, theories about the optimality of all kinds of government interventions – even protectionism – opposed by most economists, but Alchian took them all in stride. Mere policy disagreements never affected their close personal bond, and Alchian wrote the forward to Earl’s book with Charles Hickson, Ideology and the Evolution of Vital Economics Institutions. If Alchian was friendly with and an admirer of Milton Friedman, he just as friendly with, and just as admiring of, Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow, with whom he collaborated on several projects in the 1950s when they consulted for the Rand Corporation. Alchian cared less about the policy conclusion than he did about the quality of the underlying economic analysis.

As I have pointed out on several prior occasions, it is simply scandalous that Alchian was not awarded the Noble Prize. His published output was not as voluminous as that of some other luminaries, but there is a remarkably high proportion of classics among his publications. So many important ideas came from him, especially thinking about economic competition as an evolutionary process, the distinction between the functional relationship between cost and volume of output and cost and rate of output, the effect of incomplete information on economic action, the economics of property rights, the effects of inflation on economic activity. (Two volumes of his Collected Works, a must for anyone really serious about economics, contain a number of previously unpublished or hard to find papers, and are available here.) Perhaps in the future I will discuss some of my favorites among his articles.

Although Alchian did not win the Nobel Prize, in 1990 the Nobel Prize was awarded to Harry Markowitz, Merton Miller, and William F. Sharpe for their work on financial economics. Sharp, went to UCLA, writing his Ph.D. dissertation on securities prices under Alchian, and worked at the Rand Corporation in the 1950s and 1960s with Markowitz.  Here’s what Sharpe wrote about Alchian:

Armen Alchian, a professor of economics, was my role model at UCLA. He taught his students to question everything; to always begin an analysis with first principles; to concentrate on essential elements and abstract from secondary ones; and to play devil’s advocate with one’s own ideas. In his classes we were able to watch a first-rate mind work on a host of fascinating problems. I have attempted to emulate his approach to research ever since.

And if you go to the Amazon page for University Economics and look at the comments you will see a comment from none other than Harry Markowitz:

I am about to order this book. I have just read its quite favorable reviews, and I am not a bit surprised at their being impressed by Armen Alchian’s writings. I was a colleague of Armen’s, at the Rand Corporation “think tank,” during the 1950s, and hold no economist in higher regard. When I sat down at my keyboard just now it was to find out what happened to Armen’s works. One Google response was someone saying that Armen should get a Nobel Prize. I concur. My own Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded in 1990 along with the prize for Wm. Sharpe. I see in Wikipedia that Armen “influenced” Bill, and that Armen is still alive and is 96 years old. I’ll see if I can contact him, but first I’ll buy this book.

I will always remember Alchian’s air of amused, philosophical detachment, occasionally bemused (though, perhaps only apparently so, as he tried to guide his students and colleagues with question to figure out a point that he already grasped), always curious, always eager for the intellectual challenge of discovery and problem solving. Has there ever been a greater teacher of economics than Alchian? Perhaps, but I don’t know who. I close with one more quotation, this one from Axel Leijonhufvud written about Alchian 25 years ago.  It still rings true.

[Alchian’s] unique brand of price theory is what gave UCLA Economics its own intellectual profile and achieved for us international recognition as an independent school of some importance—as a group of scholars who did not always take their leads from MIT, Chicago or wherever. When I came here (in 1964) the Department had Armen’s intellectual stamp on it (and he remained the obvious leader until just a couple of years ago ….). Even people outside Armen’s fields, like myself, learned to do Armen’s brand of economic analysis and a strong esprit de corps among both faculty and graduate students sprang from the consciousness that this ‘New Institutional Economics’ was one of the waves of the future and that we, at UCLA, were surfing it way ahead of the rest. But Armen’s true importance to the UCLA school did not stem just from the new ideas he taught or the outwardly recognized “brandname” that he created for us. For many of his young colleagues he embodied qualities of mind and character that seemed the more important to seek to emulate the more closely you got to know him.


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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