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Misinterpreting the history of macroeconomic thought

From Mainly Macro by Simon Wren-Lewis:

An attractive way to give a broad sweep over the history of macroeconomic ideas is to talk about a series of reactions to crises (see Matthew Klein and Noah Smith). However it is too simple, and misleads as a result. The Great Depression led to Keynesian economics. So far so good. The inflation of the 1970s led to ? Monetarism - well maybe in terms of a few brief policy experiments in the early 1980s, but Monetarist-Keynesian debates were going strong before the 1970s. The New Classical revolution? Well rational expectations can be helpful in adapting the Phillips curve to explain what happened in the 1970s, but I’m not sure that was the main reason why the idea was so rapidly adopted. The New Classical revolution was much more than rational expectations.

The attempt gets really off beam if we try and suggest that the rise of RBC models was a response to the inflation of the 1970s. I guess you could argue that the policy failures of the 1970s were an example of the Lucas critique, and that to avoid similar mistakes macroeconomists needed to develop microfounded models. But if explaining the last crisis really was the prime motivation, would you develop models in which there was no Phillips curve, and which made no attempt to explain the inflation of the 1970s (or indeed, the previous crisis - the Great Depression)?

What the ‘macroeconomic ideas develop as a response to crises’ story leaves out is the rest of economics, and ideology. The Keynesian revolution (by which I mean macroeconomics after the second world war) can be seen as a methodological revolution. Models were informed by theory, but their equations were built to explain the data. Time series econometrics played an essential role. However this appeared to be different from how other areas of the discipline worked. In these other areas of economics, explaining behaviour in terms of optimisation by individual agents was all important. This created a tension, and a major divide within economics as a whole. Macro appeared quite different from micro.

A particular manifestation of this was the constant question: where is the source of the market failure that gives rise to the business cycle. Most macroeconomists replied sticky prices, but this prompted the follow up question: why do rational firms or workers choose not to change their prices? The way most macroeconomists at the time chose to answer this was that expectations were slow to adjust. It was a disastrous choice, but I suspect one that had very little to do with the nature of Keynesian theory, and rather more to do with the analytical convenience of adaptive expectations. Anyhow, that is another story.

The New Classical revolution was in part a response to that tension. In methodological terms it was a counter revolution, trying to take macroeconomics away from the econometricians, and bring it back to something microeconomists could understand. Of course it could point to policy in the 1970s as justification, but I doubt that was the driving force. I also think it is difficult to fully understand the New Classical revolution, and the development of RBC models, without adding in some ideology. 


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