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Is mainstream academic macroeconomics eclectic?

Author(s): Simon Wren-Lewis

From Mainly Macro:

For economists, and those interested in macroeconomics as a discipline

Eric Lonergan has a short little post that is well worth reading. Not because it is particularly deep or profound, but because it makes an important point in a clear and simple way that cuts through a lot of the nonsense written on macroeconomics nowadays. The big models/schools of thought are not right or wrong, they are just more or less applicable to different situations. You need New Keynesian models in recessions, but Real Business Cycle models may describe some inflation free booms. You need Minsky in a financial crisis, and in order to prevent the next one. As Dani Rodrik says, there are many models, and the key questions are about their applicability.

If we take that as given, the question I want to ask is whether current mainstream academic macroeconomics is also eclectic. (My original title for this post was can DSGE models be eclectic, but that got sidetracked into definitional issues, but from the way I tend to define things it is the same question.) My answer is yes and no.

Let’s take the five ‘schools’ that Eric talks about. We clearly already have three: New Keynesian, Classical, and Rational Expectations. (Rational Expectations is not normally thought of in the same terms, but I understand why Eric wanted to single it out.) There is currently a huge research programme which aims to incorporate the financial sector, and (sometimes) the potential for financial crises, into DSGE analysis, so soon we may have Minsky too. Indeed the variety of models that academic macro currently uses is far wider than this.

Does this mean academic macroeconomics is fragmented into lots of cliques, some big and some small? Not really, in the following important sense. I think that any of this huge range of models could be presented at an academic seminar, and the audience would have some idea of what was going on, and be able raise issues and make criticisms about the model on its own terms. This is because these models (unlike those of 40+ years ago) use a common language. The idea that the academic ranking of economists like Lucas should reflect events like the financial crisis seems misconceived from this point of view.

It means that the range of assumptions that models (DSGE models if you like) can make is huge. There is nothing formally that says every model must contain perfectly competitive labour markets where the simple marginal product theory of distribution holds, or even where there is no involuntary unemployment, as some heterodox economists sometimes assert. Most of the time individuals in these models are optimising, but I know of papers in the top journals that incorporate some non-optimising agents into DSGE models. So there is no reason in principle why behavioural economics could not be incorporated. If too many academic models do appear otherwise, I think this reflects the sociology of macroeconomics and the history of macroeconomic thought more than anything (see below).

It also means that the range of issues that models (DSGE models) can address is also huge. To take just one example: the idea that the financial crisis was caused by growing inequality which led to too much borrowing by less wealthy individuals. This is the theme of a 2013 paper by Michael Kumhof and colleagues. Yet the model they use to address this issue is a standard DSGE model with some twists. There is nothing fundamentally non-mainstream about it.

So why is the popular perception so different? Why do people talk about schools of thought? I think there are two reasons. First, while the above is true in the realm of academic understanding and discourse, it does not carry over into policy. When it comes to policy, we get to learn which models academic think are applicable to particular policy problems, and here divisions can be sharp. Second, there are plenty of people outside academia who have a public voice about economics (and generally a policy orientation), and they often do see themselves as school followers.

In terms of working practice rather than the hot end of macro policy decisions, most academic macroeconomists would regard themselves as eclectic in terms of the kind of work they are prepared to spend an hour or two seeing presented. But this view, and the common language that mainstream academics use, leads me to the No part of the answer to my original question. The common theme of the work I have talked about so far is that it is microfounded. Models are built up from individual behaviour.

You may have noted that I have so far missed out one of Eric’s schools: Marxian theory. What Eric want to point out here is clear in his first sentence. “Although economists are notorious for modelling individuals as self-interested, most macroeconomists ignore the likelihood that groups also act in their self-interest.” Here I think we do have to say that mainstream macro is not eclectic. Microfoundations is all about grounding macro behaviour in the aggregate of individual behaviour.

I have many posts where I argue that this non-eclecticism in terms of excluding non-microfounded work is deeply problematic. Not so much for an inability to handle Marxian theory (I plead agnosticism on that), but in excluding the investigation of other parts of the real macroeconomic world. (Start here, or type microfoundations into this blog’s search box and work backwards in time.) But for me at least this as a methodological point, rather than anything associated with any school of thought. Attempts to link the two, which I think many people including myself have been guilty of, just confuses.

The confusion goes right back, as I will argue in a forthcoming paper, to the New Classical Counter Revolution of the 1970s and 1980s. That revolution, like most revolutions, was not eclectic! It was primarily a revolution about methodology, about arguing that all models should be microfounded, and in terms of mainstream macro it was completely successful. It also tried to link this to a revolution about policy, about overthrowing Keynesian economics, and this ultimately failed. But perhaps as a result, methodology and policy get confused. Mainstream academic macro is very eclectic in the range of policy questions it can address, and conclusions it can arrive at, but in terms of methodology it is quite the opposite.

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