Roger Farmer has a somewhat puzzling guest post up at Noah Smith’s place, arguing that economics is right to limit discussion to equilibrium:
An economic equilibrium, in the sense of Nash, is a situation where a group of decision makers takes a sequence of actions that is best, (in a well defined sense), on the assumption that every other decision maker in the group is acting in a similar fashion. In the context of a competitive economy with a large number of players, Nash equilibrium collapses to the notion of perfect competition. The genius of the rational expectations revolution, largely engineered by Bob Lucas, was to apply that concept to macroeconomics by successfully persuading the profession to base our economic models on Chapter 7 of Debreu’s Theory of Value… In Debreu’s vision, a commodity is indexed by geographical location, by date and by the state of nature. Once one applies Debreu’s vision of general equilibrium theory to macroeconomics, disequilibrium becomes a misleading and irrelevant distraction.
The use of equilibrium theory in economics has received a bad name for two reasons.
First, many equilibrium environments are ones where the two welfare theorems of competitive equilibrium theory are true, or at least approximately true. That makes it difficult to think of them as realistic models of a depression, or of a financial collapse… Second, those macroeconomic models that have been studied most intensively, classical and new-Keynesian models, are ones where there is a unique equilibrium. Equilibrium, in this sense, is a mapping from a narrowly defined set of fundamentals to an outcome, where an outcome is an observed temporal sequence of unemployment rates, prices, interest rates etc. Models with a unique equilibrium do not leave room for non-fundamental variables to influence outcomes…
Multiple equilibrium models do not share these shortcomings… [But] a model with multiple equilibria is an incomplete model. It must be closed by adding an equation that explains the behavior of an agent when placed in an indeterminate environment. In my own work I have argued that this equation is a new fundamental that I call a belief function.
(Personally, I might just call it a convention.)
Some recent authors have argued that rational expectations must be rejected and replaced by a rule that describes how agents use the past to forecast the future. That approach has similarities to the use of a belief function to determine outcomes, and when added to a multiple equilibrium model of the kind I favor, it will play the same role as the belief function. The important difference of multiple equilibrium models, from the conventional approach to equilibrium theory, is that the belief function can coexist with the assumption of rational expectations. Agents using a rule of this kind, will not find that their predictions are refuted by observation. …
So his point here is that in a model with multiple equilibria, there is no fundamental reason why the economy should occupy one rather than another. You need to specify agents’ expectations independently, and once you do, whatever outcome they expect, they’ll be correct. This allows for an economy to experience involuntary unemployment, for example, as expectations of high or low income lead to increased or curtailed expenditure, which results in expected income, whatever it was, being realized. This is the logic of the Samuelson Cross we teach in introductory macro. But it’s not, says Farmer, a disequilibrium in any meaningful way:
If by disequilibrium, I am permitted to mean that the economy may deviate for a long time, perhaps permanently, from a social optimum; then I have no trouble with championing the cause. But that would be an abuse of the the term ‘disequilibrium’. If one takes the more normal use of disequilibrium to mean agents trading at non-Walrasian prices, … I do not think we should revisit that agenda. Just as in classical and new-Keynesian models where there is a unique equilibrium, the concept of disequilibrium in multiple equilibrium models is an irrelevant distraction.
I quote this at such length because it’s interesting. But also because, to me at least, it’s rather strange. There’s nothing wrong with the multiple equilibrium approach he’s describing here, which seems like a useful way of thinking about a number of important questions. But to rule out a priori any story in which people’s expectations are not fulfilled rules out a lot of other useful ways about thinking about important questions.
At INET in Berlin, the great Axel Leijonhufvud gave a talk where he described the defining feature of a crisis as the existence of inconsistent contractual commitments, so that some of them would have to be voided or violated.
What is the nature of our predicament? The web of contracts has developed serious inconsistencies. All the promises cannot possibly be fulfilled. Insisting that they should be fulfilled will cause a collapse of very large portions of the web.
But Farmer is telling us that economists not only don’t need to, but positively should not, attempt to understand crises in this sense. It’s an “irrelevant distraction” to consider the case where people entered into contracts with inconsistent expectations, which will not all be capable of being fulfilled. Farmer can hardly be unfamiliar with these ideas; after all he edited Leijonhufvud’s festschrift volume. So why is he being so dogmatic here?
I had an interesting conversation with Rajiv Sethi after Leijonhufvud’s talk; he said he thought that the inability to consider cases where plans were not realized was a fundamental theoretical shortcoming of mainstream macro models. I don’t disagree.
The thing about the equilibrium approach, as Farmer presents it, isn’t just that it rules out the possibility of people being systematically wrong; it rules out the possibility that they disagree. This strikes me as a strong and importantly empirically false proposition. (Keynes suggested that the effectiveness of monetary policy depends on the existence of both optimists and pessimists in financial markets.) In Farmer’s multiple equilibrium models, whatever outcome is set by convention, that’s the outcome expected by everyone. This is certainly reasonable in some cases, like the multiple equilibria of driving on the left or the right side of the road. Indeed, I suspect that the fact that people are irrationally confident in these kinds of conventions, and expect them to hold even more consistently than they do, is one of the main things that stabilizes these kind of equilibria. But not everything in economics looks like that.
Here’s Figure 1 from my Fisher dynamics paper with Arjun Jayadev:
See those upward slopes way over on the left? Between 1929 and 1933, household debt relative to GDP rose by abut 40 percent, and nonfinancial business debt relative to GDP nearly doubled. This is not, of course, because families and businesses were borrowing more in the Depression; on the contrary, they were paying down debt as fast as they could. But in the classic debt-deflation story, falling prices and output meant that incomes were falling even fast than debt, so leverage actually increased.
Roger Farmer, if I’m understanding him correctly, is saying that we must see this increase in debt-income ratios as an equilibrium phenomenon. He is saying that households and businesses taking out loans in 1928 must have known that their incomes were going to fall by half over the next five years, while their debt payments would stay unchanged, and chose to borrow anyway. He is saying not just that he believes that, but that as economists we should not consider any other view; we can rule out on methodological grounds the possibility that the economic collapse of the early 1930s caught people by surprise. To Irving Fisher, to Keynes, to almost anyone, to me, the rise in debt ratios in the early 1930s looks like a pure disequilibrium phenomenon; people were trading at false prices, signing nominal contracts whose real terms would end up being quite different from what they expected. It’s one of the most important stories in macroeconomics, but Farmer is saying that we should forbid ourselves from telling it. I don’t get it.
What am I missing here?