A post by Greg Hill, which inspired a recent post of my own, and Greg’s comment on that post, have reminded me of the importance of the undeservedly neglected English economist, G. L. S. Shackle, many of whose works I read and profited from as a young economist, but which I have hardly looked at for many years. A student of Hayek’s at the London School of Economics in the 1930s, Shackle renounced his early Hayekian views and the doctoral dissertation on capital theory that he had already started writing under Hayek’s supervision, after hearing a lecture by Joan Robinson in 1935 about the new theory of income and employment that Keynes was then in the final stages of writing up to be published the following year as *The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money*. When Shackle, with considerable embarrassment, had to face Hayek to inform him that he could not finish the dissertation that he had started, no longer believing in what he had written, and having been converted to Keynes’s new theory. After hearing that Shackle was planning to find a new advisor under whom to write a new dissertation on another topic, Hayek, in a gesture of extraordinary magnanimity, responded that of course Shackle was free to write on whatever topic he desired, and that he would be happy to continue to serve as Shackle’s advisor regardless of the topic Shackle chose.

Although Shackle became a Keynesian, he retained and developed a number of characteristic Hayekian ideas (possibly extending them even further than Hayek would have), especially the notion that economic fluctuations result from the incompatibility between the plans that individuals are trying to implement, an incompatibility stemming from the imperfect and inconsistent expectations about the future that individuals hold, at least some plans therefore being doomed to failure. For Shackle the conception of a general equilibrium in which all individual plans are perfectly reconciled was a purely mental construct that might be useful in specifying the necessary conditions for the harmonization of individually formulated plans, but lacking descriptive or empirical content. Not only is a general equilibrium never in fact achieved, the very conception of such a state is at odds with the nature of reality. For example, the phenomenon of surprise (and, I would add, regret) is, in Shackle’s view, a characteristic feature of economic life, but under the assumption of most economists (though not of Knight, Keynes or Hayek) that all events can be at least be forecasted in terms of their underlying probability distributions, the phenomenon of surprise cannot be understood. There are some observed events – black swans in Taleb’s terminology – that we can’t incorporate into the standard probability calculus, and are completely inconsistent with the general equilibrium paradigm.

A rational-expectations model allows for stochastic variables (e.g., will it be rainy or sunny two weeks from tomorrow), but those variables are assumed to be drawn from distributions known by the agents, who can also correctly anticipate the future prices conditional on any realization (at a precisely known future moment in time) of a random variable. Thus, all outcomes correspond to expectations conditional on all future realizations of random variables; there are no surprises and no regrets. For a model to be correct and determinate in this sense, it must have accounted fully for all the non-random factors that could affect outcomes. If any important variable(s) were left out, the predictions of the model could not be correct. In other words, unless the model is properly specified, all causal factors having been identified and accounted for, the model will not generate correct predictions for all future states and all possible realizations of random variables. And unless the agents in the model can predict prices as accurately as the fully determined model can predict them, the model will not unfold through time on an equilibrium time path. This capability of forecasting future prices contingent on the realization of all random variables affecting the actual course of the model through time, is called rational expectations, which differs from perfect foresight only in being unable to predict in advance the realizations of the random variables. But all prices conditional on those realizations are correctly expected. Which is the more demanding assumption – rational expectations or perfect foresight — is actually not entirely clear to me.

Now there are two ways to think about rational expectations — one benign and one terribly misleading. The benign way is that the assumption of rational expectations is a means of checking the internal consistency of a model. In other words, if we are trying to figure out whether a model is coherent, we can suppose that the model is the true model; if we then posit that the expectations of the agents correspond to the solution of the model – i.e., the agents expect the equilibrium outcome – the solution of the model will confirm the expectations that have been plugged into the minds of the agents of the model. This is sometimes called a fixed-point property. If the model doesn’t have this fixed-point property, then there is something wrong with the model. So the assumption of rational expectations does not necessarily involve any empirical assertion about the real world, it does not necessarily assert anything about how expectations are formed or whether they ever are rational in the sense that agents can predict the outcome of the relevant model. The assumption merely allows the model to be tested for latent inconsistencies. Equilibrium expectations being a property of equilibrium, it makes no sense for equilibrium expectations not to generate an equilibrium.

But the other way of thinking about rational expectations is as an empirical assertion about what the expectations of people actually are or how those expectations are formed. If that is how we think about rational expectations, then we are saying people always anticipate the solution of the model. And if the model is internally consistent, then the empirical assumption that agents really do have rational expectations means that we are making an empirical assumption that the economy is in fact always in equilibrium, i.e., that is moving through time along an equilibrium path. If agents in the true model expect the equilibrium of the true model, the agents must be in equilibrium. To break out of that tight circle, either expectations have to be wrong (non-rational) or the model from which people derive their expectations must be wrong.

Of course, one way to finesse this problem is to say that the model is not actually true and expectations are not fully rational, but that the assumptions are close enough to being true for the model to be a decent approximation of reality. That is a defensible response, but one either has to take that assertion on faith, or there has to be strong evidence that the real world corresponds to the predictions of the model. Rational-expectations models do reasonably well in predicting the performance of economies near full employment, but not so well in periods like the Great Depression and the Little Depression. In other words, they work pretty well when we don’t need them, and not so well when we do need them.

The relevance of the rational-expectations assumption was discussed a year and a half ago by David Levine of Washington University. Levine was an undergraduate at UCLA after I had left, and went on to get his Ph.D. from MIT. He later returned to UCLA and held the Armen Alchian chair in economics from 1997 to 2006. Along with Michele Boldrin, Levine wrote a wonderful book *Aginst Intellectual Monopoly*. More recently he has written a little book (Is Behavioral Economics Doomed?) defending the rationality assumption in all its various guises, a book certainly worth reading even (or especially) if one doesn’t agree with all of its conclusions. So, although I have a high regard for Levine’s capabilities as an economist, I am afraid that I have to criticize what he has to say about rational expectations. I should also add that despite my criticism of Levine’s defense of rational expectations, I think the broader point that he makes that people do learn from experience, and that public policies should not be premised on the assumption that people will not eventually figure out how those policies are working, is valid.

In particular, let’s look at a post that Levine contributed to the *Huffington Post* blog defending the economics profession against the accusation that the economics profession is useless as demonstrated by their failure to predict the financial crisis of 2008. To counter this charge, Levine compared economics to physics — not necessarily the strategy I would have recommended for casting economics in a favorable light, but that’s merely an aside. Just as there is an uncertainty principle in physics, which says that you cannot identify simultaneously both the location and the speed of an electron, there’s an analogous uncertainty principle in economics, which says that the forecast affects the outcome.

The uncertainty principle in economics arises from a simple fact: we are all actors in the economy and the models we use determine how we behave. If a model is discovered to be correct, then we will change our behavior to reflect our new understanding of reality — and when enough of us do so, the original model stops being correct. In this sense future human behavior must necessarily be uncertain.

Levine is certainly right that insofar as the discovery of a new model changes expectations, the model itself can change outcomes. If the model predicts a crisis, the model, if it is believed, may be what causes the crisis. Fair enough, but Levine believes that this uncertainty principle entails the rationality of expectations.

The uncertainty principle in economics leads directly to the theory of rational expectations. Just as the uncertainty principle in physics is consistent with the probabilistic predictions of quantum mechanics (there is a 20% chance this particle will appear in this location with this speed) so the uncertainty principle in economics is consistent with the probabilistic predictions of rational expectations (there is a 3% chance of a stock market crash on October 28).

This claim, if I understand it, is shocking. The equations of quantum mechanics may be able to predict the probability that a particle will appear at given location with a given speed, I am unaware of any economic model that can provide even an approximately accurate prediction of the probability that a financial crisis will occur within a given time period.

Note what rational expectations are not: they are often confused with perfect foresight — meaning we perfectly anticipate what will happen in the future. While perfect foresight is widely used by economists for studying phenomena such as long-term growth where the focus is not on uncertainty — it is not the theory used by economists for studying recessions, crises or the business cycle. The most widely used theory is called DSGE for Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium. Notice the word stochastic — it means random — and this theory reflects the necessary randomness brought about by the uncertainty principle.

I have already observed that the introduction of random variables into a general equilibrium is not a significant relaxation of the predictive capacities of agents — and perhaps not even a relaxation, but an enhancement of the predictive capacities of the agents. The problem with this distinction between perfect foresight and stochastic disturbances is that there is no relaxation of the requirement that all agents share the same expectations of all future prices in all possible future states of the world. The world described is a world without surprise and without regret. From the standpoint of the informational requirements imposed on agents, the distinction between perfect foresight and rational expectations is not worth discussing.

In simple language what rational expectations means is “if people believe this forecast it will be true.”

Well, I don’t know about that. If the forecast is derived from a consistent, but empirically false, model, the assumption of rational expectations will ensure that the forecast of the model coincides with what people expect. But the real world may not cooperate, producing an outcome different from what was forecast and what was rationally expected. The expectation of a correct forecast does not guarantee the truth of the forecast unless the model generating the forecast is true. Is Levine convinced that the models used by economists are sufficiently close to being true to generate valid forecasts with a frequency approaching that of the Newtonian model in forecasting, say, solar eclipses? More generally, Levine seems to be confusing the substantive content of a theory — what motivates the agents populating theory and what constrains the choices of those agents in their interactions with other agents and with nature — with an assumption about how agents form expectations. This confusion becomes palpable in the next sentence.

By contrast if a theory is not one of rational expectations it means “if people believe this forecast it will not be true.”

I don’t what it means to say “a theory is not one of rational expectations.” Almost every economic theory depends in some way on the expectations of the agents populating the theory. There are many possible assumptions to make about how expectations are formed. Most of those assumptions about how expectations are formed allow, though they do not require, expectations to correspond to the predictions of the model. In other words, expectations can be viewed as an equilibrating variable of a model. To make a stronger assertion than that is to make an empirical claim about how closely the real world corresponds to the equilibrium state of the model. Levine goes on to make just such an assertion. Referring to a non-rational-expectations theory, he continues:

Obviously such a theory has limited usefulness. Or put differently: if there is a correct theory, eventually most people will believe it, so it must necessarily be rational expectations. Any other theory has the property that people must forever disbelieve the theory regardless of overwhelming evidence — for as soon as the theory is believed it is wrong.

It is hard to interpret what Levine is saying. What theory or class of theories is being dismissed as having limited usefulness? Presumably, all theories that are not “of rational expectations.” OK, but why is their usefulness limited? Is it that they are internally inconsistent, i.e., they lack the fixed-point property whose absence signals internal inconsistency, or is there some other deficiency? Levine seems to be conflating the two very different ways of understanding rational expectations (a test for internal inconsistency v. a substantive empirical hypothesis). Perhaps that’s why Levine feels compelled to paraphrase. But the paraphrase makes it clear that he is not distinguishing between the substantive theory and the specific expectational hypothesis. I also can’t tell whether his premise (“if there is a correct theory”) is meant to be a factual statement or a hypothetical? If it is the former, it would be nice if the correct theory were identified. If the correct theory can’t even be identified, how are people supposed to know which theory they are supposed to believe, so that they can form their expectations accordingly? Rather than an explanation for why the correct rational-expectations theory will eventually be recognized, this sounds like an explanation for why the correct theory is unknowable. Unless, of course, we assume that the rational expectations are a necessary feature of reality in which case, people have been forming expectations based on the one true model all along, and all economists are doing is trying to formalize a pre-existing process of expectations formation that already solves the problem. But the rest of his post (see part two here) makes it clear that Levine (properly) does not hold that extreme position about rational expectations.

So in the end , I find myself unable to make sense of rational expectations except as a test for the internal consistency of an economic model, and, perhaps also, as a tool for policy analysis. Just as one does not want to work with a model that is internally inconsistent, one does not want to formulate a policy based on the assumption that people will fail to understand the effects of the policy being proposed. But as a tool for understanding how economies actually work and what can go wrong, the rational-expectations assumption abstracts from precisely the key problem, the inconsistencies between the expectations held by different agents, which are an inevitable, though certainly not the only, cause of the surprise and regret that are so characteristic of real life.