Thursday, September 8, 2011

Paul Krugman Critiques Modern Macro

Paul Krugman's Presidential Address to the Eastern Economic Association, "The Profession and the Crisis," has been published in the Eastern Economic Journal. Some excerpts:

On the shortcomings of economics in recent years: 
"There is a real sense in which times like these are what economists are for, just as wars are what career military officers are for. OK, maybe I can let microeconomists off the hook. But macroeconomics is, above all, about understanding and preventing or at least mitigating economic downturns. This crisis was the time for the economics profession to justify its existence, for us academic scribblers to show what all our models and analysis are good for. We have not, to put it mildly, delivered."

On the failure of many economists to see the housing bubble:
Well, from my point of view — which, because I’m like everyone else, is that what I saw and no more is what everyone should have seen — it still seems bizarre how many economists failed to see that we were experiencing a monstrous housing bubble. As Robert Shiller has documented — and, crucially, was documenting in real time circa 2004–5–6 [Shiller 2005] — the rise in real housing prices after 2002 or so took them into completely unprecedented territory. It was the clearest market mispricing I’ve seen in my professional life, even more obviously out of line than the dot-com bubble, which at least had the excuse that it involved novel technologies with unknown potential; houses have been with us for 7,000 years or so, and we should have a reasonable idea of what they’re worth. ...
     What about what would happen when the bubble burst? I personally failed to realize how big the “knock-on” effects would be; and according to the self-justifying principle, I’m tempted to say that nobody could reasonably have been expected to get that right. But actually, we should have seen that coming too — maybe not in full detail, but even a casual walk through historical crises should have indicated that a housing bust was likely to bring large financial and balance-sheet problems in its wake. I kick myself every once in a while for failing to think that part through.  ...
     Still, as Yogi Berra said, it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future. There are so many things going on in the world, many of them off any modeler's radar, that the profession's failure to see this crisis coming is not, in my mind, anything close to its biggest sin."
A return to the macroeconomic Dark Ages?
"But what became clear in the policy debate after the 2008 crisis was that many economists — including many macroeconomists — don’t know the simplest multiplier analysis. They literally know nothing about models in which aggregate demand can be determined by more than the quantity of money. I’m not saying that they have looked into such models and rejected them; they are unaware that it's even possible to tell a logically consistent Keynesian story. We’ve entered a Dark Age of macroeconomics, in which much of the profession has lost its former knowledge, just as barbarian Europe had lost the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans. ...
     All of this would have been OK if the triumph of anti-Keynesianism was justified by superior empirical success. But it wasn’t. As I read the history of the equilibrium approach, it's a story of failing upward. Lucas-type models clearly failed to account for the duration of slumps; rather than reconsider flexible prices and rational expectations, Lucas's followers moved on to real business cycles (RBC). RBC models failed to generate any strikingly successful predictions, and in fact lost whatever plausibility they had once productivity started becoming pro-cyclical rather than counter-cyclical. But by that time the people doing these models didn’t know that there was any alternative.
     And the result was that faced with a severe economic crisis, the profession spoke with a cacophony of voices. Or maybe a better way to put it is that the policy debate of 2009–2010 was virtually indistinguishable from the policy debate of 1931–1932. Long-refuted doctrines that should have been consigned to the dustbin of history were stated as if they were fresh new ideas — and they were fresh and new to many economists, because our profession had lost so much of its heritage.
     In short, in responding to the crisis, the profession presented a sorry spectacle of unnecessary ignorance that didn’t even recognize itself as ignorance, of bitter debate over issues that were resolved many decades earlier. And all of this, of course, made the profession mostly useless at a time when it could and should have been of great service. Put it this way: we would have responded better to this crisis if macroeconomics had been frozen at the level of knowledge it had in 1948, when Paul Samuelson published the first edition of his famous textbook. And the result has been to leave actual policy discussion without any discipline from the people who should be shaping that discussion: politicians and officials have been free to follow their prejudices and intuitions, never mind the lessons of history and analysis. Economists have failed to fulfill their social function."