Home > Uncategorized > Where modern macroeconomics went wrong

Where modern macroeconomics went wrong

from Lars Syll

DSGE models seem to take it as a religious tenet that consumption should be explained by a model of a representative agent maximizing his utility over an infinite lifetime without borrowing constraints. Doing so is called micro-founding the model. But economics is a behavioral science. If Keynes was right that individuals saved a constant fraction of their income, an aggregate model based on that assumption is micro-founded.FRANCE-US-ECONOMY-NOBEL-STIGLITZOf course, the economy consists of individuals who are different, but all of whom have a finite life and most of whom are credit constrained, and who do adjust their consumption behavior, if slowly, in response to changes in their economic environment. Thus, we also know that individuals do not save a constant fraction of their income, come what may. So both stories, the DSGE and the old-fashioned Keynesian, are simplifications. When they are incorporated into a simple macro-model, one is saying the economy acts as if… And then the question is, which provides a better description; a better set of prescriptions; and a better basis for future elaboration of the model. The answer is not obvious. The criticism of DSGE is thus not that it involves simplification: all models do. It is that it has made the wrong modelling choices, choosing complexity in areas where the core story of macroeconomic fluctuations could be told using simpler hypotheses, but simplifying in areas where much of the macroeconomic action takes place.

Joseph Stiglitz

Stiglitz is, of course, absolutely right.

DSGE models are worse than useless — and still, mainstream economists seem to be impressed by the ‘rigour’ brought to macroeconomics by New-Classical-New-Keynesian DSGE models and its rational expectations and microfoundations!

It is difficult to see why.

Take the rational expectations assumption. Rational expectations in the mainstream economists’ world imply that relevant distributions have to be time independent. This amounts to assuming that an economy is like a closed system with known stochastic probability distributions for all different events. In reality, it is straining one’s beliefs to try to represent economies as outcomes of stochastic processes. An existing economy is a single realization tout court, and hardly conceivable as one realization out of an ensemble of economy-worlds since an economy can hardly be conceived as being completely replicated over time. It is — to say the least — very difficult to see any similarity between these modelling assumptions and the expectations of real persons. In the world of the rational expectations hypothesis, we are never disappointed in any other way than as when we lose at the roulette wheels. But real life is not an urn or a roulette wheel. And that’s also the reason why allowing for cases where agents make ‘predictable errors’ in DSGE models doesn’t take us any closer to a relevant and realist depiction of actual economic decisions and behaviours. If we really want to have anything of interest to say on real economies, financial crisis and the decisions and choices real people make we have to replace the rational expectations hypothesis with more relevant and realistic assumptions concerning economic agents and their expectations than childish roulette and urn analogies.

Or take the consumption model built into the DSGE models that Stiglitz criticises. There, people are basically portrayed as treating time as a dichotomous phenomenon – today and the future — when contemplating making decisions and acting. How much should one consume today and how much in the future? Facing an intertemporal budget constraint of the form

ct + cf/(1+r) = ft + yt + yf/(1+r),

where ct is consumption today, cf is consumption in the future, ft is holdings of financial assets today, yt is labour incomes today, yf is labour incomes in the future, and r is the real interest rate, and having a lifetime utility function of the form

U = u(ct) + au(cf),

where a is the time discounting parameter, the representative agent (consumer) maximizes his utility when

u´(ct) = a(1+r)u´(cf).

This expression – the Euler equation – implies that the representative agent (consumer) is indifferent between consuming one more unit today or instead consuming it tomorrow. Typically using a logarithmic function form – u(c) = log c – which gives u´(c) = 1/c, the Euler equation can be rewritten as

1/ct = a(1+r)(1/cf),

or

cf/ct = a(1+r).

This importantly implies that according to the neoclassical consumption model that changes in the (real) interest rate and the ratio between future and present consumption move in the same direction.

So good, so far. But how about the real world? Is the neoclassical consumption as described in this kind of models in tune with the empirical facts? Hardly — the data and models are as a rule inconsistent!

In the Euler equation, we only have one interest rate, equated to the money market rate as set by the central bank. The crux is that — given almost any specification of the utility function – the two rates are actually often found to be strongly negatively correlated in the empirical literature. The data on returns and aggregate consumption simply are inconsistent with the DSGE models.

Although yours truly shares a lot of Stiglitz’ critique of DSGE modelling — “the standard DSGE model provides a poor basis for policy, and tweaks to it are unlikely to be helpful” —  it has to be said that his more general description of the history and state of modern macroeconomics is less convincing.  Stiglitz notices that some of the greatest deficiencies in DSGE models “relates to the treatment of uncertainty,” but doesn’t really follow up on that core difference between Keynesian ‘genuine uncertainty’ economics and neoclassical ‘stochastic risk’ economics. DSGE models are only the latest outgrow of neoclassical general equilibrium (Arrow-Debreu) economics. And that theory has never, and will never, be a good starting point for constructing good macroeconomic theory and models. When the foundation of the house you build is weak, it will never be somewhere you want to live, no matter how many new — and in Stiglitz’ view better — varieties of ‘micro-foundations’ you add.

  1. Econoclast
    November 7, 2020 at 6:16 pm

    “still, mainstream economists seem to be impressed by the ‘rigour’ brought to macroeconomics by New-Classical-New-Keynesian DSGE models and its rational expectations … It is difficult to see why”.

    Not for me to see why. The mainstream economists are stuck in their own “rational expectations”.

  2. merijntknibbe
    November 8, 2020 at 5:29 pm

    We also might contemplate the concept of ‘concsumption’. Economic statisticians define the concept of Actual Individual Consumption. Which is household purchasing of goods and services plus ‘individual’ use of public amenities like education or, in many countries, healthcare. The public part is financed by the government through taxes, bonds and sometimes money printing and related to the interest rate on government bonds. On top of this comes collective public consumption or the proverbial streetlight (being an inhabitant of the Netherlands, ‘coastal defences’ appeal more to me – without these defences no Netherlands). In most DSGE models, public consumption, either of the individual or the collective kind, is considered a total waste. Long story short: the ‘one rate of interest’ assumption as well as the idea that public expenditure is wasteful by definition should be scuttled.

    The point: there are DSGE models which do this. It is possible. But: these are exceptions. Which indicates that the assumptions are an ideological choice, not a scientific necessity.

  3. November 9, 2020 at 12:46 am

    Since the ‘rational consumer’ in micro-economics is not a life form, what is rational for ‘it’ is irrational for life forms. It does not have to worry about ‘survival’. If it did, there would have to be some minimums below which its continued survival would eventually be lost, and some maximums –satiation levels as it were– which, if exceeded, would be detrimental to it as an organism wishing to remain alive and healthy.

    As life is necessary for life forms to ‘enjoy’ life, anyone who thinks about this has to realize that subjective utility as an ‘explainer’ of consumer choice and of demand curves is definitely wrong..So will be any models based upon any element of micro-theorizing about ‘consumer’ behavior.

    Aggregate demand cannot be the sum of individual demand ‘curves’, even hypothetically.

    The distribution of income and the price framework do not permit the existence of agg. demand based upon subjective utilities, especially independent ones.

    That’s all, folks.

    • Econoclast
      November 9, 2020 at 1:59 am

      There you go, again — being rational.

      • November 9, 2020 at 5:29 pm

        Lol !!!

        I am currently writing a paper reconstructng economics from the ground up. Among other matters, It will revive the Classical views of objective benefits, albeit there will definitely be a role for both positive and negative ‘tastes’, so to speak. I begin by showing that ‘ideal’ demand curves can be constructed without reference to either subjective or objective utilities, but solely with refererence to the force of nominal prices in monetary economies. Such prices themselves only partly determine the framework for budget formation decisions out of income, but the forces of prices, like gravity, operate independently of all other matters affecting economic behavior; i.e., production and consumption activities.

        I begin with the pre-Classics, Isnard and Cournot neither of whom needed nor used subjective utility. From the former I introduce the concept of price-to-budget rays: lines of slope px/py extending through xy-space (in a two good model) from which one determines both price-optimal baskets/bundles in real space, each co-ordinate point also being determinative of the budget needed to purchase that basket in ‘ideal’ terms. This can then be set against objectively measurable constraints other than money ones, for the ‘ideal’ price-optimal bundle is not necessarily the ‘basket’ either firms or people would necessarily choose. [Note: Since the slope of the ray, px/py, the ray being y=px/py*x, is constant for all nomimal prices,’ideal’ nominal budgets can be determined with accuracy. These change from the ideal given other constraints which act upon people and firms.

        It is important to note that, throughout my ‘analysis’, consumption is the use of goods to realize measurable benefits expressed in non-monetary terms, save for when the benefit is itself a monetary one like profit. I move away from ‘consumption’ as ‘purchase’ to consumption as usages for defined, measurable benefits needed or wanted; and this has me defining all economic agents as ‘consumers’ all of the time. Nutritive benefits from eating food differ from monetary benefits of producing or selling food for profit (in terms of a nominal numeraire), and economics must take this into account as the classics and their predecessors did.

        Hopefully, once my thinking and writing is done, we will have ONE economics with various specialties. I wish I could publish it here, but my not being an ‘academic’ armchair or blackboard economist (formally mathematically bent towards functional formal expressions) may cause me to write it for a broader public as it seems unlikely to be accepted by academic journals. I have no way of communicating with Lars for even a pre-publication review.

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        November 10, 2020 at 4:05 am

        larrymotuz:

        It will revive the Classical views of objective benefits, albeit there will definitely be a role for both positive and negative ‘tastes’, so to speak. I begin by showing that ‘ideal’ demand curves can be constructed without reference to either subjective or objective utilities, but solely with reference to the force of nominal prices in monetary economies.

        Interesting attempt, but I wonder if it is a good idea to define “demand curve” (or show it exists or construct it). Larrymotuz did not clarified the form of the demand curve. From his expression, it seems to be a curve that depends on nominal prices. How can you show that there is such a causal process in which demand is uniquely defined from a set of prices.

        As for the causal processes, please see my comment on November 9, 2020 concerning Jesper Jespersen’s account on “Effective demand”.

        Of course, Larry’s demand curve and Keynes’s aggregate supply curve are different. More precisely the situations considered to be given are different. However, to analyse causal process is important. Please explain how your demand curve is constructed.

        I have read both of Isnard and Cournot (more than 40 years ago). Isnard’s book was one of first idea of demand and supply equilibrium but it was based on a very rough idea of equilibrium. It may be remarkable as one of starting ideas of demand and supply equilibrium formulations, but in my opinion it was still pre-scientific or pre-analytic exposition of a vague idea. Cournot is much more scientific and it is reasonable that Marshall learned much from him. But, I wonder if Cournot has any idea that goes beyond neoclassical economics.

        Anyway, you must finish your paper. We can know what you have achieved.

  4. Yoshinori Shiozawa
    November 9, 2020 at 7:30 am

    [T]hat theory [= neoclassical general equilibrium (Arrow-Debreu economics)] has never, and will never, be a good starting point for constructing good macroeconomic theory and models.

    Lars Syll is absolutely right. It is not sufficient to criticize DSGE models and their unrealistic nature. The core foundations of neoclassical economics lies in Arrow-Debreu-type general equilibrium theory. It is a shame that we rarely read in this blog criticisms on this core of neoclassical economics.

    Lars is absolutely right, but I cannot say he is completely right. He spent too many words in refuting DSGE models and only a few words on the core of neoclassical economics.

    • November 9, 2020 at 5:49 pm

      General equilibrium is not something the economy moves towards any of the time, there being no forces whatsoever that guide real economies in such a direction. Aside from the unrealistic restrictions of the Arrow-Debreu model, there is nothing which suggests that economies spontaneously gravitate towards the most competition possible and a lot of evidence indicating they don’t do that at all. ‘Laissez-faire’, even in Walras and Pareto, is not normally a spontaneous outcome of markets. Neither saw these developing ‘naturally’ and both saw it to be a duty of governments to attempt through law and regulations to try to achieve it because consolidation to minimize ‘competition’ was a more natural ‘force’ operating in markets (for various reasons). If these major architects of ALL that is neoclassical felt it was a duty because markets did not spontaneously generate more competition, then this too is a reason to avoid not the formalism of Arrow or Debreu, but drawing real world policy conclusions from such models.

      • Econoclast
        November 9, 2020 at 6:08 pm

        There is but one example I know of showing the functioning “invisible hand”: the American freeway. If you look at these creations from a natural viewpoint, they are terrifying. We don various masks to cope with the terror. In this context, “operation” and “management” are irrelevant, speed limit signs notwithstanding.

        I look forward to your paper. Don’t worry about peer review: so long as you don’t write in turgid academic prose, your peers are here. Please include a perspective on the power of financialized predatory corporate capital.

      • November 10, 2020 at 6:48 pm

        One might say that the freeway’s ‘invisible hand’ is made up 1. of a set of government regulations about what side of the road you are to drive upon, who qualifies as a driver, and speed limits, and related matters; 2. the experience of drivers themselves.

        Both are important to the functioning of freeways, through the former is vital. The ‘invisible hand’ is here mostly a set of governing regulations setting limits upon the natural liberty of people to do whatever they want to do (which is the fundamental purpose of all laws and regulations under those laws). It is not ‘spontaneous’, save for the reality that before such regulations oversee ‘freeway’, operations, most drivers will see some need to cooperate with other drivers for efficiency in travelling time and for their own safety. That some drivers may not see any need to cooperate with others is the primary reason for such governmentally imposed regulations.

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        November 10, 2020 at 5:54 am

        Econoclast, the American freeway is only a parable of how spontaneous order emerges. It does not explain how actual modern industrial economy works. Arrow and Debreu’s general competitive equilibrium is a quite unique example of such an explanation. Of course, it is a failed attempt from various viewpoints. Dependence on equilibrium framework is the most serious defect of their theory. But, you should also know that a new framework that explains how our economy works without relying on equilibrium concept is now available.

        Please see our book Microfoundations of Evolutionary Economics. For a first reading, please try Marc Lavoie’s book review on our book.

    • November 10, 2020 at 3:56 pm

      You are absolutely correct in wondering if it is a good idea to define a “demand curve” (or show it exists or construct it). It is less a ‘demand curve’ than it is an ‘ideal locus’ of an abstract, optimal set of balances between a money holding :: monies being equivalency numeraires which function as standard of values and also as mediums of exchange :: relative to a good ‘valued’ in terms of that numeraire exchange medium. So it is not a ‘demand curve’ by any stretch of the imagination. Thank you for pointing that out!

      I will have to refrain from using the term ‘demand curve’ and start referring to it as a balance schedule between goods and money when no other factors are operating to alter that relationship. In other words, neither effective demand nor Keynes’s effective Agg. Demand can be derived from such ideal balances, especially since these can be derived without recourse to consumption or ‘consumers’ as such. What all ‘consumers’ do is affected by but irrelevant to such ideal holdings of goods in monetary economies, for these are solely ’caused by’ the existence of a standard of value which also functions as the medium of exchange within monetary economies. That differs significantly from pre-monetary economies wherein there usually are equivalency standards of value as referrents points for exchange values. Sheep or cattle, for example, are not circulating mediums of exchange but, in many cultures in the not all that distant past, have characteristically functioned as ‘exchange values’. [When Adam Smith cites Homer to say that this person’s suit of armor was ‘this value’ in cattle whereas that heroic person’s was ‘that value’, this was hardly say that the armorer required so many cattle in exchange from either person. The armorer didn’t (and probably had no use for the cattle themselves). The difference between a circulating medium of exchange and a non-circulating equivalency standard is very important to understanding economic activity within monetized economies. And, it underlies the reality that the distribution of income underpins actual effective demand and the future growth paths of monetary economies.]

      Like you I believe, I abandon notions of equilibrium in a market and general equilibrium across markets. Problems with markets clearing have nothing to do with such notions. ‘Balance’ between supply and effective/effectual demand in any market is merely a neat notion, but is also usually an impossibility in the real world.

      Finally, I group Cournot as a pre-Classical predecessor, not a neoclassical one, in his thought. [As an engineer by training, he did not ‘explain’ his ‘demand curve’, but merely noted a relationship between prices and goods bought, unfortunately latter branded as a ‘law’.

      {Note:As an exercise in two-good space, money being on the horizontal axis, any good on the y-axis, all price rays have the slope y = px/py = 1/py for all possible budgets, revealing the optimal balance between money holding and that particular good’s holding. You can derive what’s known as a demand curve for any good (or what the budget must be for any basket made up of that good or money (x, y =px/py*x). Have fun!)

  5. Yoshinori Shiozawa
    November 10, 2020 at 5:34 am

    larrymotus is right in claiming that

    General equilibrium is not something the economy moves towards any of the time, there being no forces whatsoever that guide real economies in such a direction. Aside from the unrealistic restrictions of the Arrow-Debreu model, there is nothing which suggests that economies spontaneously gravitate towards the most competition possible and a lot of evidence indicating they don’t do that at all.

    This is the very reason why we should abandon or reject equilibrium analyses, if one wants to rebuild economics on a right rail. Lawson and Lars Syll argue for the critical realism, but they are not very focused on what we should do. If one wants to rebuild economics based on cumulative causation, the first thing to do is to reject equilibrium framework.

    I know this is a request very demanding for Post Keynesian economics, because most of them are constructed on equilibrium framework. Of course, this tradition originates from Keynes’s General Theory. As Meir Kohn pointed in his 1986 paper Monetary Analysis, the Equilibrium Method, and Keynes’s “General Theory,” Journal of Political Economy 94(6): 1191-1224, Keynes converted from process analyses that he and his contemporaries had been adopting in 1920’s to equilibrium analysis in The General Theory. This is one of reasons of the big success of the book but also a reason why he met counter-revolution after about forty years later. Methodologically speaking, we should go back to A Treatise on Money. We should know that being literally loyal to Keynes does not lead to any breakthroughs in economics. Keynes is full of contradictions. We can find some precious insights in his text but that insights must be reconstructed in a right way.

  6. November 10, 2020 at 10:21 am

    Yoshinori, having jumped to ridiculous conclusions elsewhere (assuming that I, a committed Christian intellectual for seventy years, brought up on Biblical history, know nothing of monetary history) here does the same with equilibrium: assuming Keynes is talking about General Equilibrium when in fact he is talking about what governments can do to help restore equilibrium to unbalance flows. To quote the Bible in response to Yoshinori, “by their fruits you shall know them”; but let him read Peter Selby’s “Grace and Mortgage”. Compare what Keynes did with what Trump is doing. In response to Larry, I would suggest that intelligent people don’t fight battles they can’t win: they seek a niche in which they can prosper undisturbed.

    The reason Keynes was faced with a counter-revolution was a reason Yoshinori doesn’t seem able to comprehend: that the same system of monetary flows (the Wheatstone Bridge form) has outcomes which depend on what money is taken to be: valued metals, IOU’s for them, paper money used not to retrieve valuables but supplying information on spot transactions to balance accounts (equilibrium-seeking by quantity, surely), or credit information enabling future transactions, where the books should only balance when the goods are received, but knowing the goods have not yet been received enables remedial action to be undertaken. This last is Keynes, whereas “post-Keynesian” Hicks still thought him just balancing accounts.

    • November 10, 2020 at 7:03 pm

      One might say that the freeway’s ‘invisible hand’ is made up 1. of a set of government regulations about what side of the road you are to drive upon, who qualifies as a driver, and speed limits, and related matters; 2. the experience of drivers themselves.

      Both are important to the functioning of freeways, through the former is vital. The ‘invisible hand’ is here mostly a set of governing regulations setting limits upon the natural liberty of people to do whatever they want to do (which is the fundamental purpose of all laws and regulations under those laws). It is not ‘spontaneous’, save for the reality that before such regulations oversee ‘freeway’, operations, most drivers will see some need to cooperate with other drivers for efficiency in travelling time and for their own safety. That some drivers may not see any need to cooperate with others is the primary reason for such governmentally imposed regulations.

    • November 10, 2020 at 7:27 pm

      Dave,

      When struck by the outcomes of policy and programs whose raison d’etre lies in bad theory, the ‘intelligent man’ not only complains about the theoretical foundations but, if so inclined, replaces them. If that replacement ‘works’, others will use it. I am not ‘complaining’ but ‘replacing’. Others will determine if I ‘win’. I believe that most economists will agree with my paper once I have written it. {And so will you, since your systems approach dovetails with it.)

      Abandoning ‘subjective utility’ as the sole ‘explanation’ for the price system, and abandoning ‘equilibrium’ based upon it in conjunction with supply ‘curves’ is merely one step among many I take, but this is a vital step behind what I hope to see others’ construct theory based upon scientific evidence which will be practically useful. The distribution of income is key to any construction of effective Agg. Demand, and all texts which ignore that key factor by supposing any form of the neutrality of money is absolutely invalid both logically and statistically, (and especially when such suppositions are then tied to a notion of a ‘representative consumer’.

      This has serious ‘welfare’ implications, for what one is ‘willing to pay’ is, in practice, a function of one’s wealth/income and credit-worthiness. We cannot abstractly talk about ‘willingness to pay’ as if these practical considerations can be set aside. I abandon all notions of consumer surplus based upon the faulty notion that ‘willingness to pay’ is independent of the income/wealth distribution of economies, for it is NOT.

      BTW, I like your last paragraph.

  7. Yoshinori Shiozawa
    November 10, 2020 at 11:46 am

    Of course, I do not do such a silly confusion. But please read Meir Kohn’s paper.

    • November 10, 2020 at 7:47 pm

      If not a silly confusion then deliberate misrepresentation. Jesper Jespersen kindly sent me a paper which pinpoints a not-so-silly misunderstanding at the root of Yoshinori’s silliness in not listening to counter-arguments: his “seeing Keynes saying “Savings equal investment” (rather than “Savings equal REAL investment”, discounting savings tied up in speculation)”.

    • Yoshinori Shiozawa
      November 11, 2020 at 2:05 am

      Dave, think by yourself. I have criticized Jespersen’s argument in my comment on Lars Syll’s post What is ”effective demand’? on October 22, 2020. Your comment on mine (in that thread) does not respond to what I have contended. Citing Jespersen’s personal communication (in this thread) has no meaning. Why didn’t Jespersen post his objection as a comment on my post? (It is a symptom that he has difficulty to respond.) If he does, I am ready to argue further, because what I have contended there is not a whim. I have contemplated it for many years.

      I do not know which paper Jespersen has sent to Dave. Dave thinks that it pinpoints my misunderstanding by referring to Keynes’s argument on “saving equal investment”. Is it your idea or that of Jespersen? In my comment (above cited) I said nothing about “saving equal investment”. Why can it be a pinpoint response?

      What I said above does not mean that I have no opinion on “saving equals investment” proposition. I have also a serious objection on it, but it takes a long explanations. So, I did not mention it.

      • November 11, 2020 at 9:01 am

        Yoshinori, I HAVE thought for myself and you have repeatedly accused Keynes of claiming “savings equals investment” when this would have been inconsistent with what he was trying to demonstrate. I quoted (or paraphrased) what Jesperson said because he said it much more clearly than I have done: in fact given me a much clearer way of saying it.

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        November 11, 2020 at 10:39 am

        Good! If you are accusing “saving equals investment” proposition, I want to know your understanding on this precise theme. I expect you a pinpoint answer even if it is long.

      • November 11, 2020 at 10:55 am

        “Savings equal REAL investment”. The qualifier discounts savings tied up in speculation.

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        November 11, 2020 at 3:18 pm

        Your answer is composed of terms but does not contain any verb. It does not make a proposition. So, it indicate any of our opinion.

        At any rate, let us argue in another thread: What is ‘effective demand’?, because the topic is tightly connected to our theme.

  8. November 10, 2020 at 7:42 pm

    When I wrote :: “Abandoning ‘subjective utility’ as the sole ‘explanation’ for the price system …” :: I did not mean to imply that subjective utility has any impacts on the price system. It effects the composition of ‘optimal’ balanced bundles away from those dictated by the operation of prices alone by, in effect, rotating the price ray to reflect different equivalency values than money alone gives. But it does not work alone and can be countervailed (or ignored) when other factors like needs for non-monetary objective benefits are primary motivations for choosing bundles of goods.

  9. Yoshinori Shiozawa
    November 11, 2020 at 2:09 am

    larrymotuz, would you like to send me an e-mail to y@shiozawa.net? I have some papers that I want to send to you.

    • November 11, 2020 at 7:30 pm

      Yoshinori Shiozawa, I will do that later today..

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