To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences.
The quote is, of course, from Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Judging by Noah Smith’s recent blog entry, there is still progress to be made.
Smith observes that the performance of DSGE models is dependably poor in predicting future macroeconomic outcomes—precisely the task for which they are widely deployed. Critics of DSGE are however dismissed because—in a nutshell—there’s nothing better out there.
This argument is deficient in two respects. First, there is a self-evident flaw in a belief that, despite overwhelming and damning evidence that a particular tool is faulty—and dangerously so—that tool should not be abandoned because there is no obvious replacement.
The second deficiency relates to the claim that there is no alternative way to approach macroeconomics:
When I ask angry “heterodox” people “what better alternative models are there?”, they usually either mention some models but fail to provide links and then quickly change the subject, or they link me to reports that are basically just chartblogging.
Although Smith is too polite to accuse me directly, this refers to a Twitter exchange
from a few days earlier. This was triggered when I took offence at a previous post
of his in which he argues that the triumph of New Keynesian sticky-price models over their Real Business Cycle predecessors was proof that “if you just keep pounding away with theory and evidence, even the toughest orthodoxy in a mean, confrontational field like macroeconomics will eventually have to give you some respect”.
When I put it to him that, rather then supporting his point, the failure of the New Keynesian model to be displaced—despite sustained and substantiated criticism—rather undermined it, he responded—predictably—by asking what should replace it.
The short answer is that there is no single model that will adequately tell you all you need to know about a macroeconomic system. A longer answer requires a discussion of methodology and the way that we, as economists, think about the economy. To diehard supporters of the ailing DSGE tradition, “a model” means a collection of dynamic simultaneous equations constructed on the basis of a narrow set of assumptions around what individual “agents” do—essentially some kind of optimisation problem. Heterodox economists argue for a much broader approach to understanding the economic system in which mathematical models are just one tool to aid us in thinking about economic processes.
What all this means is that it is very difficult to have a discussion with people for whom the only way to view the economy is through the lens of mathematical models—and a particularly narrowly defined class of mathematical models—because those individuals can only engage with an argument by demanding to be shown a sheet of equations.
In repsonse to such a demand, I conceded ground by noting that the sectoral balances approach, most closely associated with the work of Wynne Godley, was one example of mathematical formalism in heterodox economics. I highlighted Godley’s famous 1999 paper
in which, on the basis of simulations from a formal macro model, he produces a remarkably prescient prediction of the 2008 financial crisis:
…Moreover, if, per impossibile, the growth in net lending and the growth in money supply growth were to continue for another eight years, the implied indebtedness of the private sector would then be so extremely large that a sensational day of reckoning could then be at hand.
This prediction was based on simulations of the private sector debt-to-income ratio in a system of equations constructed around the well-known identity that the financial balances of the private, public and foreign sector must sum to zero. Godley’s assertion was that, at some point, the growth of private sector debt relative to income must come to an end, triggering a deflationary deleveraging cycle—and so it turned out.
Despite these predictions being generated on the basis of a fully-specified mathematical model, they are dismissed by Smith as “chartblogging” (see the quote above). If “chartblogging” refers to constructing an argument by highlighting trends in graphical representations of macroeconomic data, this seems an entirely admissible approach to macroeconomic analysis. Academics and policy-makers in the 2000s could certainly have done worse than to examine a chart of the household debt-to-income ratio. This would undoubtedly have proved more instructive than adding another mathematical trill to one of the polynomials of their beloved DSGE models—models, it must be emphasised, once again, in which money, banks and debt are, at best, an afterthought.
But the “chartblogging” slur is not even half-way accurate. The macroeconomic model used by Godley grew out of research at the Cambridge Economic Policy Group in the 1970s when Godley and his colleagues Francis Cripps and Nicholas Kaldor were advisors to the Treasury. It is essentially an old-style macroeconometric model combined with financial and monetary stock-flow accounting. The stock-flow modelling methodology has subsequently developed in a number of directions and detailed expositions are to be found in a wide range of publications including the well-known textbook by Lavoie and Godley—a book which surely contains enough equations to satisfy even Smith. Other well-known macroeconometric models include the model used by the UK Office of Budget Responsibility, the Fair model in the US, and MOSES in Scandinavia, alongside similar models in Norway and Denmark. Closer in spirit to DSGE are the NIESR model and the IMF quarterly forecasting model. On the other hand, there is the CVAR method of Johansen and Juselius and similar approaches of Pesaran et al. These are only a selection of examples—and there is an equally wide range of more theoretically oriented work.
This demonstrates the total ignorance of the mainstream of the range and vibrancy of theoretical and empirical research and debate taking place outside the realm of microfounded general equilibrium modelling. The increasing defensiveness exhibited by neoclassical economists when faced with criticism suggests, moreover, an uncomfortable awareness that all is not well with the orthodoxy. Instead of acknowleding the existence of a formal literature outside the myopia of mainstream academia, the reaction is to try and shut down discussion with inaccurate blanket dismissals.
I conclude by noting that Smith isn’t Godley’s highest-profile detractor. A few years after he died—Godley, that is—Krugman wrote an unsympathetic review of his approach to economics, deriding him—oddly for someone as wedded to the IS-LM system as Krugman—for his “hydraulic Keynesianism”. In Krugman’s view, Godley’s method has been superseded by superior microfounded optimising-agent models:
So why did hydraulic macro get driven out? Partly because economists like to think of agents as maximizers—it’s at the core of what we’re supposed to know—so that other things equal, an analysis in terms of rational behavior always trumps rules of thumb. But there were also some notable predictive failures of hydraulic macro, failures that it seemed could have been avoided by thinking more in maximizing terms.
Predictive failures? Of all the accusations that could be levelled against Godley, that one takes some chutzpah.