(Warning: To anyone reading this who’s not immersed in the debates of the econo blogosphere, this post will fully live up the blog’s subtitle.)
One of the big things this past week was Krugman’s criticism of Steve Keen. This was a Big Deal, since it is, sadly, rare for someone of Krugman’s stature to engage with anyone in the heterodox world. Unfortunately it wasn’t a productive exchange; no real information was exchanged, and neither side, IMveryHO, covered themselves in glory. For anyone interested in what’s wrong with Krugman’s side, there’s a good discussion in the comments to this Nick Rowe post. Here I am going to focus on Keen.
Keen’s most recent paper is here; it gives the clearest statement of his view that I’ve seen. As I see it, there are two parts to it. First, he argues that a tradition running from Minsky back to Keynes and Schumpeter (and, I would add, Wicksell and on back to the “caps” in 17th century Sweden) sees money as endogenously created by the banking system, rather than exogenously set by central banks (or, earlier, by the supply of gold). This means that banks can lend to borrowers without a prior decision by anyone to save, which in turn means that changes in the terms on which banks extend credit are an important source of fluctuations in aggregate demand that drive movements in output and prices. With all this, I am in perfect agreement.
But then he tries to formalize these ideas. And about the best thing you can say about his formalization is that it uses terms in such an idiosyncratic way that communication is all but impossible. I know I’m not the only one who’s found Keen’s stuff a bit like the novel Untitled in Martin Amis’ The Information, which literally cannot be read. But let’s make an attempt. Here are what seem to be the two key elements.
Keen repeatedly says that “aggregate demand is income plus change in debt.” There are many variations on this through his writing, he evidently regards it as a central contribution. But what does it mean? To a non-economist, it appears to be a challenge to another, presumably orthodox, view that aggregate demand is equal to income. But if you are an economist you know that there is no such view, whether neoclassical, Keynesian or radical.
What economist do believe, across the spectrum, is that total expenditure = total output = total income, or Y = Z = C + I + G + X – M. Given the way our national accounts are set up, this is an identity. The question, as always, is which way causality runs. The term “aggregate demand” is shorthand for the argument that causality runs from aggregate expenditure to aggregate income, whereas pre-Keynesian orthodoxy held that causality ran strictly from income to expenditure. (It’s worth noting that in this debate Krugman is solidly with Keen — and me — on the Keynesian side.) But there isn’t any separate variable called “aggregate demand”; AD is just another name for aggregate expenditure insofar as it determines output. Nobody ever says that AD is equal to income; what they typically say is that AD is a function of income, along with other variables such as interest rates, wealth, and changes in sentiment. (People do say that income is equal to AD, but that is a very different claim, and it’s true by definition.)
I can imagine various more or less sensible things Keen might have meant by the statement, but it feels kind of silly to speculate. As written it makes no sense at all.
The second formalism is Keen’s equation, which he gives the jawbreaker of a name “the Walras-Schumpeter-Minsky’s Law”:
Y(t) + dD/dt = GDP(t) + NAT(t).
Y is income, D is debt, and NAT is net asset turnover. This last is defined as “the price index for assets P, times their quantity Q, times the annual turnover T expressed as a fraction of the number of assets, T<1: NAT = P*Q*T.”
And now we really run into problems.
First of all, is this an accounting identity, or a behavioral equation? Does it hold exactly by definition, or does it describe an empirical regularity that holds only approximately? This is the most basic thing you need to know about any equation in economics, but Keen, as far as I can tell, doesn’t say.
Second, in the national accounts and every economic tradition that I’m aware of, aggregate income Y is identically equal to GDP. They’re just two ways of representing the same quantity. So it seems that Keen is using “income” in some idiosyncratic way that he never specifies. Alternatively, and more in the spirit of Minsky and Schumpeter, perhaps he is thinking of Y as anticipated or current-period income, and GDP as realized or next-period income. But again, it’s not much use to speculate about what Keen might have meant.
The next problem is units. GDP and presumably Y are flows over a specified period (a year or a quarter); they are in units of dollars. dD/dt is an instantaneous rate of flow; it is in units of dollars per unit time. And NAT, as defined, is the product of two indexes times a fraction, so it is a dimensionless number. Well, you can’t add variables with different units. That is just algebra. So again, whatever Keen has in mind, it is something other than what he wrote. And while it’s easy enough to replace dD/dt with delta-D over the period that GDP is being measured, I really have no idea what to do with the NAT term.
It doesn’t help that at no point in the paper — or in any of his other stuff that I’ve seen — does he give any values for Y or NAT. He has lots of graphs of debt, output, employment, etc., showing — to the surprise of no one — that these cyclical variables are correlated. But since Y and NAT don’t figure in any of them, it’s not clear what work the Walras-Schumpeter-Minsky’s Law is supposed to be doing. Again, if his point is that endogenous changes in credit supply are important to business cycles, I’m with him 100%. (Though so are, it’s worth noting, some perfectly orthodox New Keynesians.) But if your idea is just that there is some important connection between A and B and C, the equation A = B + C is not a good way of saying it.
Honestly, it sometimes feels as though Steve Keen read a bunch of Minsky and Schumpeter and realized that the pace of credit creation plays a big part in the evolution of GDP. So he decided to theorize that relationship by writing, credit squiggly GDP. And when you try to find out what exactly is meant by squiggly, what you get are speeches about how orthodox economics ignores the role of the banking system.
Keen is taken seriously by serious people. He’s presenting this paper at the big INET conference in Berlin next week. It’s not OK that he writes in a way that makes it impossible to understand or evaluate his ideas. For better or worse, we in the world of unconventional economics cannot rely on the usual professional gatekeepers. So we have a special duty to police each other’s work, not of course for ideology, but for meeting basic standards of logic and evidence. There are very important arguments in Schumpeter, Minsky, etc. about the role of the financial system in capitalism, which mainstream economics has downplayed, just as Keen says. And he may well have something important to add to those arguments. But until he writes in a language spoken by people other than himself, there’s no way to know.
 Not to mention the odd stipulation that T < 0. Why is it impossible for the average turnover time of assets to be less than a year? Or does he really mean the fraction of assets that change hands at least once? What possible economic meaning could that have?
EDIT: I’m a bit unhappy about this post. It’s too harsh on Keen. As Steve Randy Waldman suggests in comments, there probably is a valid insight in there, if one can just get past his opaque terminology. (Altho that’s all the more reason for him to stop speaking in idiolect…) More importantly, posting this critique of Keen makes it seem like I am on Krugman’s side, when his contributions to the debate have been every bit as bad in their own way — as lucid as Keen is impenetrable, but also just embarassingly wrong, at least form where I’m sitting. This post by
Michael Stephens Randy Wray at the Levy Institute blog does a good job laying out the issues. I agree with everything he says, I think.
EDIT 2:… and now here’s Keen saying that
Krugman’s part of the economic establishment, which for thirty or forty years has got away with arguing that you can model a capitalist economy as if it had no banks in it, no money, and no debt… You just don’t have a model of capitalism if you don’t include those components.
I’m also unhappy with that. Krugman (and New Keynesians/monetarists in general) are very specifically modeling an economy with money, but without banks. I agree with Keen that you do need to think about the financial system to understand macro dynamics, but you can’t make the case for that if you can’t correctly describe the position you are arguing against. I don’t think we will make intellectual progress without being more careful about this stuff.