Posts Tagged 'theory of second best'

Richard Lipsey and the Phillips Curve Redux

Almost three and a half years ago, I published a post about Richard Lipsey’s paper “The Phillips Curve and the Tyranny of an Assumed Unique Macro Equilibrium.” The paper originally presented at the 2013 meeting of the History of Econmics Society has just been published in the Journal of the History of Economic Thought, with a slightly revised title “The Phillips Curve and an Assumed Unique Macroeconomic Equilibrium in Historical Context.” The abstract of the revised published version of the paper is different from the earlier abstract included in my 2013 post. Here is the new abstract.

An early post-WWII debate concerned the most desirable demand and inflationary pressures at which to run the economy. Context was provided by Keynesian theory devoid of a full employment equilibrium and containing its mainly forgotten, but still relevant, microeconomic underpinnings. A major input came with the estimates provided by the original Phillips curve. The debate seemed to be rendered obsolete by the curve’s expectations-augmented version with its natural rate of unemployment, and associated unique equilibrium GDP, as the only values consistent with stable inflation. The current behavior of economies with the successful inflation targeting is inconsistent with this natural-rate view, but is consistent with evolutionary theory in which economies have a wide range of GDP-compatible stable inflation. Now the early post-WWII debates are seen not to be as misguided as they appeared to be when economists came to accept the assumptions implicit in the expectations-augmented Phillips curve.

Publication of Lipsey’s article nicely coincides with Roger Farmer’s new book Prosperity for All which I discussed in my previous post. A key point that Roger makes is that the assumption of a unique equilibrium which underlies modern macroeconomics and the vertical long-run Phillips Curve is neither theoretically compelling nor consistent with the empirical evidence. Lipsey’s article powerfully reinforces those arguments. Access to Lipsey’s article is gated on the JHET website, so in addition to the abstract, I will quote the introduction and a couple of paragraphs from the conclusion.

One important early post-WWII debate, which took place particularly in the UK, concerned the demand and inflationary pressures at which it was best to run the economy. The context for this debate was provided by early Keynesian theory with its absence of a unique full-employment equilibrium and its mainly forgotten, but still relevant, microeconomic underpinnings. The original Phillips Curve was highly relevant to this debate. All this changed, however, with the introduction of the expectations-augmented version of the curve with its natural rate of unemployment, and associated unique equilibrium GDP, as the only values consistent with a stable inflation rate. This new view of the economy found easy acceptance partly because most economists seem to feel deeply in their guts — and their training predisposes them to do so — that the economy must have a unique equilibrium to which market forces inevitably propel it, even if the approach is sometimes, as some believe, painfully slow.

The current behavior of economies with successful inflation targeting is inconsistent with the existence of a unique non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU) but is consistent with evolutionary theory in which the economy is constantly evolving in the face of path-dependent, endogenously generated, technological change, and has a wide range of unemployment and GDP over which the inflation rate is stable. This view explains what otherwise seems mysterious in the recent experience of many economies and makes the early post-WWII debates not seem as silly as they appeared to be when economists came to accept the assumption of a perfectly inelastic, long-run Phillips curve located at the unique equilibrium level of unemployment. One thing that stands in the way of accepting this view, however, the tyranny of the generally accepted assumption of a unique, self-sustaining macroeconomic equilibrium.

This paper covers some of the key events in the theory concerning, and the experience of, the economy’s behavior with respect to inflation and unemployment over the post-WWII period. The stage is set by the pressure-of-demand debate in the 1950s and the place that the simple Phillips curve came to play in it. The action begins with the introduction of the expectations-augmented Phillips curve and the acceptance by most Keynesians of its implication of a unique, self-sustaining macro equilibrium. This view seemed not inconsistent with the facts of inflation and unemployment until the mid-1990s, when the successful adoption of inflation targeting made it inconsistent with the facts. An alternative view is proposed, on that is capable of explaining current macro behavior and reinstates the relevance of the early pressure-of-demand debate. (pp. 415-16).

In reviewing the evidence that stable inflation is consistent with a range of unemployment rates, Lipsey generalizes the concept of a unique NAIRU to a non-accelerating-inflation band of unemployment (NAIBU) within which multiple rates of unemployment are consistent with a basically stable expected rate of inflation. In an interesting footnote, Lipsey addresses a possible argument against the relevance of the empirical evidence for policy makers based on the Lucas critique.

Some might raise the Lucas critique here, arguing that one finds the NAIBU in the data because policymakers are credibly concerned only with inflation. As soon as policymakers made use of the NAIBU, the whole unemployment-inflation relation that has been seen since the mid-1990s might change or break. For example, unions, particularly in the European Union, where they are typically more powerful than in North America, might alter their behavior once they became aware that the central bank was actually targeting employment levels directly and appeared to have the power to do so. If so, the Bank would have to establish that its priorities were lexicographically ordered with control of inflation paramount so that any level-of-activity target would be quickly dropped whenever inflation threatened to go outside of the target bands. (pp. 426-27)

I would just mention in this context that in this 2013 post about the Lucas critique, I pointed out that in the paper in which Lucas articulated his critique, he assumed that the only possible source of disequilibrium was a mistake in expected inflation. If everything else is working well, causing inflation expectations to be incorrect will make things worse. But if there are other sources of disequilibrium, it is not clear that incorrect inflation expectations will make things worse; they could make things better. That is a point that Lipsey and Kelvin Lancaster taught the profession in a classic article “The General Theory of Second Best,” 20 years before Lucas published his critique of econometric policy evaluation.

I conclude by quoting Lipsey’s penultimate paragraph (the final paragraph being a quote from Lipsey’s paper on the Phillips Curve from the Blaug and Lloyd volume Famous Figures and Diagrams in Economics which I quoted in full in my 2013 post.

So we seem to have gone full circle from the early Keynesian view in which there was no unique level of GDP to which the economy was inevitably drawn, through a simple Phillips curve with its implied trade-0ff, to an expectations-augmented Phillips curve (or any of its more modern equivalents) with its associated unique level of GDP, and finally back to the early Keynesian view in which policymakers had an option as to the average pressure of aggregate demand at which economic activity could be sustained. However, the modern debated about whether to aim for [the high or low range of stable unemployment rates] is not a debate about inflation versus growth, as it was in the 1950s, but between those who would risk an occasional rise of inflation above the target band as the price of getting unemployment as low as possible and those who would risk letting unemployment fall below that indicated by the lower boundary of the NAIBU  as the price of never risking an acceleration of inflation above the target rate. (p. 427)

What Does “Keynesian” Mean?

Last week Simon Wren-Lewis wrote a really interesting post on his blog trying to find the right labels with which to identify macroeconomists. Simon, rather disarmingly, starts by admitting the ultimate futility of assigning people labels; reality is just too complicated to conform to the labels that we invent to help ourselves make sense of reality. A good label can provide us with a handle with which to gain a better grasp on a messy set of observations, but it is not the reality. And if you come up with one label, I may counter with a different one. Who’s to say which label is better?

At any rate, as I read through Simon’s post I found myself alternately nodding my head in agreement and shaking my head in disagreement. So staying in the spirit of fun in which Simon wrote his post, I will provide a commentary on his labels and other pronouncements. If the comments are weighted on the side of disagreement, well, that’s what makes blogging fun, n’est-ce pas?

Simon divides academic researchers into two groups (mainstream and heterodox) and macroeconomic policy into two approaches (Keynesian and anti-Keynesian). He then offers the following comment on the meaning of the label Keynesian.

Just think about the label Keynesian. Any sensible definition would involve the words sticky prices and aggregate demand. Yet there are still some economists (generally not academics) who think Keynesian means believing fiscal rather than monetary policy should be used to stabilise demand. Fifty years ago maybe, but no longer. Even worse are non-economists who think being a Keynesian means believing in market imperfections, government intervention in general and a mixed economy. (If you do not believe this happens, look at the definition in Wikipedia.)

Well, as I pointed out in a recent post, there is nothing peculiarly Keynesian about the assumption of sticky prices, especially not as a necessary condition for an output gap and involuntary unemployment. So if Simon is going to have to work harder to justify his distinction between Keynesian and anti-Keynesian. In a comment on Simon’s blog, Nick Rowe pointed out just this problem, asking in particular why Simon could not substitute a Monetarist/anti-Monetarist dichotomy for the Keynesian/anti-Keynesian one.

The story gets more complicated in Simon’s next paragraph in which he describes his dichotomy of academic research into mainstream and heterodox.

Thanks to the microfoundations revolution in macro, mainstream macroeconomists speak the same language. I can go to a seminar that involves an RBC model with flexible prices and no involuntary unemployment and still contribute and possibly learn something. Equally an economist like John Cochrane can and does engage in meaningful discussions of New Keynesian theory (pdf).

In other words, the range of acceptable macroeconomic models has been drastically narrowed. Unless it is microfounded in a dynamic stochastic general equilibrium model, a model does not qualify as “mainstream.” This notion of microfoundation is certainly not what Edmund Phelps meant by “microeconomic foundations” when he edited his famous volume Microeconomic Foundations of Employment and Inflation Theory, which contained, among others, Alchian’s classic paper on search costs and unemployment and a paper by the then not so well-known Robert Lucas and his early collaborator Leonard Rapping. Nevertheless, in the current consensus, it is apparently the New Classicals that determine what kind of model is acceptable, while New Keynesians are allowed to make whatever adjustments, mainly sticky wages, they need to derive Keynesian policy recommendations. Anyone who doesn’t go along with this bargain is excluded from the mainstream. Simon may not be happy with this state of affairs, but he seems to have made peace with it without undue discomfort.

Now many mainstream macroeconomists, myself included, can be pretty critical of the limitations that this programme can place on economic thinking, particularly if it is taken too literally by microfoundations purists. But like it or not, that is how most macro research is done nowadays in the mainstream, and I see no sign of this changing anytime soon. (Paul Krugman discusses some reasons why here.) My own view is that I would like to see more tolerance and a greater variety of modelling approaches, but a pragmatic microfoundations macro will and should remain the major academic research paradigm.

Thus, within the mainstream, there is no basic difference in how to create a macroeconomic model. The difference is just in how to tweak the model in order to derive the desired policy implication.

When it comes to macroeconomic policy, and keeping to the different language idea, the only significant division I see is between the mainstream macro practiced by most economists, including those in most central banks, and anti-Keynesians. By anti-Keynesian I mean those who deny the potential for aggregate demand to influence output and unemployment in the short term.

So, even though New Keynesians have learned how to speak the language of New Classicals, New Keynesians can console themselves in retaining the upper hand in policy discussions. Which is why in policy terms, Simon chooses a label that is at least suggestive of a certain Keynesian primacy, the other side being defined in terms of their opposition to Keynesian policy. Half apologetically, Simon then asks: “Why do I use the term anti-Keynesian rather than, say, New Classical?” After all, it’s the New Classical model that’s being tweaked. Simon responds:

Partly because New Keynesian economics essentially just augments New Classical macroeconomics with sticky prices. But also because as far as I can see what holds anti-Keynesians together isn’t some coherent and realistic view of the world, but instead a dislike of what taking aggregate demand seriously implies.

This explanation really annoyed Steve Williamson who commented on Simon’s blog as follows:

Part of what defines a Keynesian (new or old), is that a Keynesian thinks that his or her views are “mainstream,” and that the rest of macroeconomic thought is defined relative to what Keynesians think – Keynesians reside at the center of the universe, and everything else revolves around them.

Simon goes on to explain what he means by the incoherence of the anti-Keynesian view of the world, pointing out that the Pigou Effect, which supposedly invalidated Keynes’s argument that perfect wage and price flexibility would not eventually restore full employment to an economy operating at less than full employment, has itself been shown not to be valid. And then Simon invokes that old standby Say’s Law.

Second, the evidence that prices are not flexible is so overwhelming that you need something else to drive you to ignore this evidence. Or to put it another way, you need something pretty strong for politicians or economists to make the ‘schoolboy error’ that is Says Law, which is why I think the basis of the anti-Keynesian view is essentially ideological.

Here, I think, Simon is missing something important. It was a mistake on Keynes’s part to focus on Say’s Law as the epitome of everything wrong with “classical economics.” Actually Say’s Law is a description of what happens in an economy when trading takes place at disequilibrium prices. At disequilibrium prices, potential gains from trade are left on the table. Not only are they left on the table, but the effects can be cumulative, because the failure to supply implies a further failure to demand. The Keynesian spending multiplier is the other side of the coin of the supply-side contraction envisioned by Say. Even infinite wage and price flexibility may not help an economy in which a lot of trade is occurring at disequilibrium prices.

The microeconomic theory of price adjustment is a theory of price adjustment in a single market. It is a theory in which, implicitly, all prices and quantities, but a single price-quantity pair are in equilibrium. Equilibrium in that single market is rapidly restored by price and quantity adjustment in that single market. That is why I have said that microeconomics rests on a macroeconomic foundation, and that is why it is illusory to imagine that macroeconomics can be logically derived from microfoundations. Microfoundations, insofar as they explain how prices adjust, are themselves founded on the existence of a macroeconomic equilibrium. Founding macroeconomics on microfoundations is just a form of bootstrapping.

If there is widespread unemployment, it may indeed be that wages are too high, and that a reduction in wages would restore equilibrium. But there is no general presumption that unemployment will be cured by a reduction in wages. Unemployment may be the result of a more general dysfunction in which all prices are away from their equilibrium levels, in which case no adjustment of the wage would solve the problem, so that there is no presumption that the current wage exceeds the full-equilibrium wage. This, by the way, seems to me to be nothing more than a straightforward implication of the Lipsey-Lancaster theory of second best.

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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