Anti-Mankiw

Elsewhere on the World Wide Web: Some UMass comrades have revived the internet tradition of the grudge blog with this interesting new blog, with the Stakhanovite goal of refuting (tho thankfully not fisking) every post Greg Mankiw makes. It’s an ambitious goal, especially since the average wordcount ratio of an anti post to its underlying Mankiw post is running around 50:1. But they’re managing so far. You should read it. And if anyone wants to take a swing at the pinata, I think they may still be looking for new contributors.

So why aren’t I contributing? Mainly because time is scarce and I am very lazy, so blogging-wise I’m tapped out just keeping up a trickle of content here. But also, to be honest, because I have some qualms about the anti-ness of the left in economics generally. Anti-Mankiw is a great project, and I have nothing but admiration for the students who walked out of Mankiw’s class. But there’s a certain assumption here that we on the left have a well-developed alternative economics, which the Mankiws of the world are ignoring or suppressing. If only that were true.

Right now I’m teaching macro, and I’m presenting basically the same material as everyone else. ISLM, AS/AD, and their open economy equivalents. How come? Well, partly because I feel a certain professional duty. Students signed up for a course in intermediate macroeconomics, not in J.W. Mason Thought. (That will be next semester.) But mainly because it’s the path of least resistance. I don’t know any good textbook that presents the fundamentals of macroeconomics from a genuinely Keynesian or radical perspective. And working up a course by myself would be vastly more work, and I don’t think I could do it justice. A downward sloping AD curve, let’s say, is absurd. There’s no real economy on earth in which the main effect of deflation is to stimulate demand via a real balance or “Keynes” effect. It pains me to even put it on the board. But what’s the counterhegemonic model of inflation I should be teaching in its place?

It’s not just me. I know a number of people who are unapologetic Marxists in their own work, yet when they teach undergraduate macroeconomics, they use Blanchard or some similarly conventional text. It’s a structural problem. I don’t mean to defend Mankiw, but in some ways I think those of us on the left of the profession are more to blame for the state of undergraduate economics education. We spend too much time on critiques of the mainstream, and not nearly enough developing a systematic alternative. Some people criticize radical economists for just talking to each other, but personally I think we don’t talk to each other nearly enough.

The anti-Mankiw that’s needed, it seems to me, isn’t a critique, but an alternative; as long as we’re arguing with him, he still gets to decide what we’re talking about. That’s one reason I prefer to spend my time debating people like Krugman, DeLong, John Quiggin, and Nick Rowe, who I respect and learn from even when I don’t agree with them. (Another reason is that attention is a precious resource and I prefer giving the bit I get to allocate to people and ideas that deserve it.)

It’s true that the ideological policing in economics is very tight—but mainly at the top end, and even there mostly not at the level of undergraduate teaching. As far as I can tell, most places nobody cares what you do in the classroom; there’s already plenty of space for alternatives at schools that aren’t Harvard. But people mostly aren’t using that space. In my experience, even when people want to bring a “radical” perspective to undergraduate econ, that means presenting the mainstream models and then dissecting  them, which preserves the mainstream view as the default or starting point, when it doesn’t just leaves students confused. “Radical” economics almost never seems to mean simply teaching economics the way we radicals think it should be taught.

So yes, Occupy Mankiw, by all means. But maybe we should also think more about the classrooms we’re already occupying. Or as a graffito that should be familiar to the male fraction of anti-Mankiw says:

Start your own hit band or stop bitching

EDIT: If anyone reading this wants to suggest good models or resources for what an undergrad economics course ought to look like, I’d be thrilled to hear them.

FURTHER EDIT: Lots of suggestions. I need to walk back a little: There are more good alternatives to Mankiw  & co. than you’d guess reading this post. But the key point is still, we need to move past critique and develop our own positive views. As long we’re responding to him, he’s setting the terms of the conversation. Read about, say,  Paul Sweezy in the 1940s — he was so admired not because he had such a cutting critique, but because he so clearly and confidently offered an alternative. (And because he was so charming and good-looking, but that sort of goes with it, I think.) We’ll be getting somewhere when, instead of rushing to rebut everything Mankiw says, we can say, “Oh, is that guy still writing? Well, forget about him — here’s the good stuff.”

So, the good stuff.

I should have mentioned two excellent macro texts that, while they are too advanced for the students I’m teaching now, really comprehensively describe the state of the art alternative approaches to macro: Michl and Foley’s Growth and Distribution and Lance Taylor’s Reconstructing Macroeconomics. If, like me, you;re more more interested in short-term dynamics than growth models, you might get a little more out of the Taylor book, but both are very good.

In comments, NKlein suggests Godley and Lavoie’s Monetary Economics: An Integrated Approach, which I know other people recommend but I’m afraid I haven’t read (tho it’s on my Kindle), and mentions that Randy Wray and Bill Mitchell are working on a new textbook. I believe Wray currently teaches undergraduate macro at Kansas City using Keynes’ General Theory as the primary textbook, which is not a terrible idea (tho it would probably depend on the students.)

A lot of people like Understanding Capitalism, by Sam Bowles, Richard Edwards and Frank Roosevelt. Sam’s microeconomics textbook is also supposed to be good, if, god forbid, you have to teach that. (But the orthodox-heterodox divide doesn’t really exist in micro, I don’t think.)

Meanwhile, over on anti-Mankiw itself, Garth suggested — more or less simultaneously with this post — Steve Cohn’s Reintroducing Macroeconomics, and linked to a long list of heterodox texts. I’m only familiar with a few of the books on the list, altho most of the ones I do know are grab-bags of critical essays, which is not quite what I’m looking for. But clearly there’s a lot out there.

Bond Market Vigilantes: Invisible or Inconceivable?

Brad DeLong is annoyed with people who are scared of invisible bond-market vigilantes. And he’s right to be annoyed! It’s extraordinarily silly — or dishonest — to claim that the confidence of bondholders constrains fiscal policy in the United States. As he puts it, “Any loss of confidence in the long-term fiscal stability of the United States of America” is an “economic thing that does not exist.”

So he’s right. But does he have the right to be right?

I’m going to say No. Because the error he is pointing to, is one that the economics he teaches gives no help in avoiding.

The graduate macroeconomics course at Berkeley uses David Romer’s Advanced Macroeconomics, 3rd Edition. (The same text I used at UMass.) Here’s what it says about government budget constraints:

What this means is that the present value of government spending across all future time must be less than or equal to the present value of taxation across all future time, minus the current value of government debt. This is pretty much the starting point for all mainstream discussions of government budgets. In Blanchard and Fischer, another widely-used graduate macro textbook, the entire discussion of government budgets is just the working-out of that same equation. (Except they make it an equality rather than an inequality.) If you’ve studied economics at a graduate level, this is what government budget constraint means to you.

But here’s the thing: That kind of constraint has nothing to do with the kind of constraint DeLong’s post is talking about.

The textbook constraint is based on the idea that government is setting tax and spending levels for all periods once and for all. There’s no difference between past and future — the equation is unchanged if you reverse the sign of the t terms (i.e. flip the past and future) and simultaneously reverse the sign of the interest rate. (In the special case where the interest rate is zero, you can put the periods in any order you like.) This approach isn’t specific to government budget constraints, it’s the way everything is approached in contemporary macroeconomics. The starting point of the Blanchard and Fischer book, like many macro textbooks, is the Ramsey  model of a household (central planner) allocating known production and consumption possibilities across an infinite time horizon. (The Romer book starts with the Solow growth model and derives it from the Ramsey model in chapter two.) Economic growth simply means that the parameters are such that the household, or planner, chooses a path of output with higher values in later periods than in earlier ones. Financial markets and aggregate demand aren’t completely ignored, of course, but they’re treated as details to be saved for the final chapters, not part of the main structure.

You may think that’s a silly way to think about the economy (I may agree), but one important feature of these models is that the interest rate is not the cost of credit or finance; rather, it’s the fixed marginal rate of substitution of spending or taxing between different periods. By contrast, that interest is the cost of money, not the cost of substitution between the future and the present, was maybe the most important single point in Keynes’ General Theory. But it’s completely missing from contemporary textbooks, even though it’s only under this sense of interest that there’s even the possibility of bond market vigilantism. When we are talking about the state of confidence in the bond market, we are talking about a finance constraint — the cost of money — not a budget constraint. But the whole logic of contemporary macroeconomics (intertemporal allocation of real goods as the fundamental structure, with finance coming in only as an afterthought) excludes the possibility of government financing constraints. At no point in either Romer or Blanchard and Fischer are they ever discussed.

You can’t expect people to have a clear sense of when government financing constraints do and don’t bind, if you teach them a theory in which they don’t exist.

EDIT: Let me spell the argument out a little more. In conventional economics, time is just another dimension on which goods vary. Jam today, jam tomorrow, jam next week are treated just like strawberry jam, elderberry jam, ginger-zucchini jam, etc. Either way, you’re choosing the highest-utility basket that lies within your budget constraint. An alternative point of view – Post Keynesian if you like – is that we can’t make choices today about future periods. (Fundamental uncertainty is one way of motivating this, but not the only way.) The tradeoff facing us is not between jam today and jam tomorrow, but between jam today and money today. Money today presumably translates into jam tomorrow, but not on sufficiently definite terms that we can put it into the equations. (It’s in this sense that a monetary theory and a theory of intertemporal optimization are strict alternatives.) Once you take this point of view, it’s perfectly logical to think of the government budget constraint as a financing constraint, i.e. as the terms on which expenditure today trades off with net financial claims today. Which is to say, you’re now in the discursive universe where things like bond markets exist. Again, yes, modern macro textbooks do eventually introduce bond markets — but only after hundreds of pages of intertemporal optimization. If I wrote the textbooks, the first model wouldn’t be of goods today vs. goods tomorrow, but goods today vs. money today. DeLong presumably disagrees. But in that world, macroeconomic policy discussions might annoy him less.

Summers on Microfoundations

From The Economist’s report on this weekend’s Institute for New Economic Thinking conference at Bretton Woods:

The highlight of the first evening’s proceedings was a conversation between Harvard’s Larry Summers, till recently President Obama’s chief economic advisor, and Martin Wolf of the Financial Times. Much of the conversation centred on Mr Summers’s assessments of how useful economic research had been in recent years. Paul Krugman famously said that much of recent macroeconomics had been “spectacularly useless at best, and positively harmful at worst”. Mr Summers was more measured… But in its own way, his assessment of recent academic research in macroeconomics was pretty scathing.For instance, he talked about all the research papers that he got sent while he was in Washington. He had a fairly clear categorisation for which ones were likely to be useful: read virtually all the ones that used the words leverage, liquidity, and deflation, he said, and virtually none that used the words optimising, choice-theoretic or neoclassical (presumably in the titles or abstracts). His broader point—reinforced by his mentions of the knowledge contained in the writings of Bagehot, Minsky, Kindleberger, and Eichengreen—was, I think, that while it would be wrong to say economics or economists had nothing useful to say about the crisis, much of what was the most useful was not necessarily the most recent, or even the most mainstream. Economists knew a great deal, he said, but they had also forgotten a great deal and been distracted by a lot.Even more scathing, perhaps, was his comment that as a policymaker he had found essentially no use for the vast literature devoted to providing sound micro-foundations to macroeconomics.

Pretty definitive, no?

And that’s it it — I promise! — on microfoundations, methodology, et hoc genus omne in these parts, at least for a while. I have a couple new posts at least purporting to offer concrete analysis of the concrete situation, just about ready to go.

Why Do We Need Heterodox Economics Departments?

A comrade writes:

Economics is too important to leave it to the mainstream. Economic ideas and economists are very powerful at shaping and influencing the societies in which we live. We, heterodox economists, are a minority and we need our voice be heard. I’m afraid that the radicalism of “I don’t care the mainstream, I do my own thing” is the most conservative strategy. It leaves us as college professors teaching mainstream stuff with a heterodox twist but without any significant influence in the real world. Please, don’t take this wrong. I respect and admire those who like teaching at colleges as a way of life. I’m just saying that as a collective output is a suicide. Our battle is at research universities, central banks, finance ministries, international institutions and think tanks, where the presence of mainstream economist is overwhelming. We need to challenge and persuade them and for that we need to know their theories and methods.

I disagree.

Of course we don”t want to be cloistered. But there are many possible channels by which our work can reach public policy, social movements and the larger world. Shifting the mainstream of economics is only one possible channel and not, in my judgment, the strongest or most reliable one.

To take a personal example: I recently agreed to do some research work for a couple of state-level minimum-wage campaigns,giving them numbers on the distribution of workers who would be covered by the bills by industry and firm size and the profitability of the major low-wage sectors in those states. The people organizing the campaigns are now using those numbers for position papers, talking points for canvassing, op-eds, etc. I even went down to Maryland a couple weeks ago to testify before the legislature.

Of course you need some basic knowledge of econometrics and the relevant literature to do this kind of work. But do you need the kind of knowledge you’d need to be a cutting-edge labor economist? No, obviously not; I’m not a labor economist of any sort. And yet, I would argue, this kind of direct work with practical political campaigns/organizations is at least as likely — more likely, IMO — to produce concrete policy changes and to shift the public debate, than an effort to master the techniques of mainstream labor economics, publish sufficiently on the minimum wage to move the consensus of the profession, and then count on the “official” representatives of the profession to pass the message on to policymakers. Fundamentally, I don’t agree that our battle is at research universities, central banks, etc. Our jobs may be at those places. But our battle is with people engaged in practical political work and organizing. This isn’t (just) a moral stand; I think the implicit assumption that the consensus of the economics profession is first shaped by the quality of the arguments made on various sides, and then transmitted to politics, is not applicable to the real world. If you want to contribute to political change, you need to be part of a political project; winning debates within the economics profession doesn’t help. The recent history of macroeconomics shows that clearly, no?

There’s a second point. The idea that we should be orienting our training around learning to persuade the mainstream assumes that “we” already know what we want to persuade them of. But that’s not the case. On most of the big questions, we don’t have any consensus on what the right answers are, even if we’re confident they’re not what’s taught in most programs. And the project of developing an alternative economics is very different from the project of persuading people of an alternative economics. The second would require talking — and having the tools to talk — with others. But the first requires primarily talking among ourselves. And the first has to come first. Economics is hard! And Marxist, post-Keynesian, feminist, institutionalist economics is just as hard as mainstream economics. (Albeit in different ways — less math, more fieldwork & history.) Unless we — meaning we heterodox/radical economists — are systematically building on each others’ work, there will never be an alternative view to persuade the mainstream of. Which means there needs to be spaces for conversations within radical economics, where we can critique and develop our own approaches, and for getting the training necessary to take part in those conversations.

All of us tend to exaggerate our own intellectual autonomy. (It’s a legacy of the Enlightenment.) We think we’re rational beings, who know what we want and choose the best tools to get it. But , means and ends don’t always separate so cleanly. You say you want a prestigious position only in order to have a better platform from which to advance progressive ideas, but soon enough the means becomes the ends. (I’ve seen it happen!) There can’t be left ideas without a sociological left — without a group of people who feel some objective connection with each other, have shared experiences and interests, share a common identity. Because ideas will accomodate to the situation of the person who holds them. (Erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral.) We all think, no not me, but yes us too. If there aren’t at least a few settings in which specifically radical economics is professionally rewarded, we shouldn’t take it for granted that it will continue to exist.

The Lucas Critique: A Critique

Old-fashioned economic models (multiplier-accelerator models of the business cycle, for example) operate in historical time: outcomes in one period determine decisions in the next period. That is, agents are backward-looking. The Lucas critique is that this assumes that people cannot predict what will happen in the future. The analyst on the other hand can derive later outcomes from earlier ones (or we would not be able to tell a causal story), so why can’t the agents in the model?
Lucas says this is an unacceptable contradiction, and resolves it by attributing to the agents the model used by the analyst. (Interestingly some Post Keynesians (e.g. Shackle) seem to see the same contradiction but they resolve it the other way, and take the inability to predict the future attributed to the agents in the model as a fundamental feature of the universe, so applicable to the analyst too.) But is the idea of predictable but unpredicted outcomes such an unacceptable contradiction?

One reason to say no is that the idea that agents must know as much as analyst rests on a sociological foundation – that institutions are such as to foster knowledge of the best estimate of future outcomes. This need not be the case. For example, consider the owners of an asset that has recently appreciated in value, where there is some doubt about whether the appreciation is transitory or permanent, or whether further appreciation should be expected. Those asset-owners who have a convincing story of why further appreciation is likely will be most successful at selling at a higher price, and so will increase their weight in the market. And to have a convincing story you should yourself be convinced by it – this is true both logically and psychologically. Similarly with various arm’s-length relationships that must be periodically renewed – the most accurate promises are not necessarily the most likely to bring success. Or on the other side, classes and organizations to maintain their coherence need their members to hold certain beliefs. This could take the deep form of ideology of various kinds, or the simple form of the practical requirements of organizational decision-making implying a limited set of inputs. The other reason comes if you carry the Lucas critique through to its logical conclusion. Those who accept rational expectations also use the method of comparative statics, where transitions from one equilibrium to another is the result of “shocks”. One set of technologies, tastes, endowments, policies, etc. yields equilibrium A. Then a shock changes those parameters, and now there’s equilibrium B. Joan Robinson objected to this procedure on grounds that it ignored dynamics of transition from A to B, but there is another problem. Evidently B is a possible future of A. The analyst knows this. So why don’t the inhabitants of A? Unless the shock is literally divine intervention, presumably its probability can be affected by the their actions, so doesn’t the analysis of A have to take that into account? Or, even if the shock is indeed an act of God, it’s possibility must be known – since it is known to the analyst – and so it must affect decisions made in A. But in that case the effects of the shock can be hedged and nothing happens as a result of the shock; there is no longer two equilibria, just one. So we either have agents with perfect knowledge of everything and no knowledge of shocks, which must literally be divine interventions; or we can have only a single equilibrium which nothing can change; or we can become nihilists like Shackle; or we can reject the Lucas critique and accept that there are regularities in economic behavior that are not anticipated by the actors involved.