Yes, says Krugman. But the economists he is talking about are neoclassicals and their variants, who have been pretty much driving economics and economic policy for a long time. He argues that the neoclassical stuff is neat and clean but wrong and its alternative is messier and not straight forward but right.
one thing’s for sure: we don’t have that beautiful final theory now, so the current choice is between ideas that are beautiful but wrong and a much messier hodgepodge.
Here is how he feels about economics, economists, and the whole profession. This is a good rundown of the trouble with economics and economists for people how have not read Krugman’s book ‘The Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008’, which I have reviewed here.
Few economists saw our current crisis coming, but this predictive failure was the least of the field’s problems. More important was the profession’s blindness to the very possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy. During the golden years, financial economists came to believe that markets were inherently stable — indeed, that stocks and other assets were always priced just right. There was nothing in the prevailing models suggesting the possibility of the kind of collapse that happened last year. Meanwhile, macroeconomists were divided in their views. But the main division was between those who insisted that free-market economies never go astray and those who believed that economies may stray now and then but that any major deviations from the path of prosperity could and would be corrected by the all-powerful Fed. Neither side was prepared to cope with an economy that went off the rails despite the Fed’s best efforts.
And in the wake of the crisis, the fault lines in the economics profession have yawned wider than ever. Lucas says the Obama administration’s stimulus plans are “schlock economics,” and his Chicago colleague John Cochrane says they’re based on discredited “fairy tales.” In response, Brad DeLong of the University of California, Berkeley, writes of the “intellectual collapse” of the Chicago School, and I myself have written that comments from Chicago economists are the product of a Dark Age of macroeconomics in which hard-won knowledge has been forgotten.
As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth. Until the Great Depression, most economists clung to a vision of capitalism as a perfect or nearly perfect system. That vision wasn’t sustainable in the face of mass unemployment, but as memories of the Depression faded, economists fell back in love with the old, idealized vision of an economy in which rational individuals interact in perfect markets, this time gussied up with fancy equations. The renewed romance with the idealized market was, to be sure, partly a response to shifting political winds, partly a response to financial incentives. But while sabbaticals at the Hoover Institution and job opportunities on Wall Street are nothing to sneeze at, the central cause of the profession’s failure was the desire for an all-encompassing, intellectually elegant approach that also gave economists a chance to show off their mathematical prowess.
Unfortunately, this romanticized and sanitized vision of the economy led most economists to ignore all the things that can go wrong. They turned a blind eye to the limitations of human rationality that often lead to bubbles and busts; to the problems of institutions that run amok; to the imperfections of markets — especially financial markets — that can cause the economy’s operating system to undergo sudden, unpredictable crashes; and to the dangers created when regulators don’t believe in regulation.
It’s much harder to say where the economics profession goes from here. But what’s almost certain is that economists will have to learn to live with messiness. That is, they will have to acknowledge the importance of irrational and often unpredictable behavior, face up to the often idiosyncratic imperfections of markets and accept that an elegant economic “theory of everything” is a long way off. In practical terms, this will translate into more cautious policy advice — and a reduced willingness to dismantle economic safeguards in the faith that markets will solve all problems.
Keynes did not, despite what you may have heard, want the government to run the economy. He described his analysis in his 1936 masterwork, “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money,” as “moderately conservative in its implications.” He wanted to fix capitalism, not replace it. But he did challenge the notion that free-market economies can function without a minder, expressing particular contempt for financial markets, which he viewed as being dominated by short-term speculation with little regard for fundamentals. And he called for active government intervention — printing more money and, if necessary, spending heavily on public works — to fight unemployment during slumps.
It’s important to understand that Keynes did much more than make bold assertions. “The General Theory” is a work of profound, deep analysis — analysis that persuaded the best young economists of the day. Yet the story of economics over the past half century is, to a large degree, the story of a retreat from Keynesianism and a return to neoclassicism. The neoclassical revival was initially led by Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago, who asserted as early as 1953 that neoclassical economics works well enough as a description of the way the economy actually functions to be “both extremely fruitful and deserving of much confidence.” But what about depressions?
[..] Eventually, however, the anti-Keynesian counterrevolution went far beyond Friedman’s position, which came to seem relatively moderate compared with what his successors were saying. Among financial economists, Keynes’s disparaging vision of financial markets as a “casino” was replaced by “efficient market” theory, which asserted that financial markets always get asset prices right given the available information. Meanwhile, many macroeconomists completely rejected Keynes’s framework for understanding economic slumps. Some returned to the view of Schumpeter and other apologists for the Great Depression, viewing recessions as a good thing, part of the economy’s adjustment to change. And even those not willing to go that far argued that any attempt to fight an economic slump would do more harm than good.
[…]“We have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand. The result is that our possibilities of wealth may run to waste for a time — perhaps for a long time.” So wrote John Maynard Keynes in an essay titled “The Great Slump of 1930,” in which he tried to explain the catastrophe then overtaking the world. And the world’s possibilities of wealth did indeed run to waste for a long time; it took World War II to bring the Great Depression to a definitive end.
About faulty models:
[…] It’s hard to argue that this transformation in the profession was driven by events. True, the memory of 1929 was gradually receding, but there continued to be bull markets, with widespread tales of speculative excess, followed by bear markets. In 1973-4, for example, stocks lost 48 percent of their value. And the 1987 stock crash, in which the Dow plunged nearly 23 percent in a day for no clear reason, should have raised at least a few doubts about market rationality.
These events, however, which Keynes would have considered evidence of the unreliability of markets, did little to blunt the force of a beautiful idea. The theoretical model that finance economists developed by assuming that every investor rationally balances risk against reward — the so-called Capital Asset Pricing Model, or CAPM (pronounced cap-em) — is wonderfully elegant. And if you accept its premises it’s also extremely useful. CAPM not only tells you how to choose your portfolio — even more important from the financial industry’s point of view, it tells you how to put a price on financial derivatives, claims on claims. The elegance and apparent usefulness of the new theory led to a string of Nobel prizes for its creators, and many of the theory’s adepts also received more mundane rewards: Armed with their new models and formidable math skills — the more arcane uses of CAPM require physicist-level computations — mild-mannered business-school professors could and did become Wall Street rocket scientists, earning Wall Street paychecks.
To be fair, finance theorists didn’t accept the efficient-market hypothesis merely because it was elegant, convenient and lucrative. They also produced a great deal of statistical evidence, which at first seemed strongly supportive. But this evidence was of an oddly limited form. Finance economists rarely asked the seemingly obvious (though not easily answered) question of whether asset prices made sense given real-world fundamentals like earnings. Instead, they asked only whether asset prices made sense given other asset prices. Larry Summers, now the top economic adviser in the Obama administration, once mocked finance professors with a parable about “ketchup economists” who “have shown that two-quart bottles of ketchup invariably sell for exactly twice as much as one-quart bottles of ketchup,” and conclude from this that the ketchup market is perfectly efficient.
Saltwater economists vs. Freshwater economists:
Forty years ago most economists would have agreed with this interpretation. But since then macroeconomics has divided into two great factions: “saltwater” economists (mainly in coastal U.S. universities), who have a more or less Keynesian vision of what recessions are all about; and “freshwater” economists (mainly at inland schools), who consider that vision nonsense.
Freshwater economists are, essentially, neoclassical purists. They believe that all worthwhile economic analysis starts from the premise that people are rational and markets work, a premise violated by the story of the baby-sitting co-op. As they see it, a general lack of sufficient demand isn’t possible, because prices always move to match supply with demand. If people want more baby-sitting coupons, the value of those coupons will rise, so that they’re worth, say, 40 minutes of baby-sitting rather than half an hour — or, equivalently, the cost of an hours’ baby-sitting would fall from 2 coupons to 1.5. And that would solve the problem: the purchasing power of the coupons in circulation would have risen, so that people would feel no need to hoard more, and there would be no recession.
[…]Meanwhile, saltwater economists balked. Where the freshwater economists were purists, saltwater economists were pragmatists. While economists like N. Gregory Mankiw at Harvard, Olivier Blanchard at M.I.T. and David Romer at the University of California, Berkeley, acknowledged that it was hard to reconcile a Keynesian demand-side view of recessions with neoclassical theory, they found the evidence that recessions are, in fact, demand-driven too compelling to reject. So they were willing to deviate from the assumption of perfect markets or perfect rationality, or both, adding enough imperfections to accommodate a more or less Keynesian view of recessions. And in the saltwater view, active policy to fight recessions remained desirable.
But the self-described New Keynesian economists weren’t immune to the charms of rational individuals and perfect markets. They tried to keep their deviations from neoclassical orthodoxy as limited as possible. This meant that there was no room in the prevailing models for such things as bubbles and banking-system collapse. The fact that such things continued to happen in the real world — there was a terrible financial and macroeconomic crisis in much of Asia in 1997-8 and a depression-level slump in Argentina in 2002 — wasn’t reflected in the mainstream of New Keynesian thinking.
Even so, you might have thought that the differing worldviews of freshwater and saltwater economists would have put them constantly at loggerheads over economic policy. Somewhat surprisingly, however, between around 1985 and 2007 the disputes between freshwater and saltwater economists were mainly about theory, not action. The reason, I believe, is that New Keynesians, unlike the original Keynesians, didn’t think fiscal policy — changes in government spending or taxes — was needed to fight recessions. They believed that monetary policy, administered by the technocrats at the Fed, could provide whatever remedies the economy needed. At a 90th birthday celebration for Milton Friedman, Ben Bernanke, formerly a more or less New Keynesian professor at Princeton, and by then a member of the Fed’s governing board, declared of the Great Depression: “You’re right. We did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, it won’t happen again.” The clear message was that all you need to avoid depressions is a smarter Fed.
And as long as macroeconomic policy was left in the hands of the maestro Greenspan, without Keynesian-type stimulus programs, freshwater economists found little to complain about. (They didn’t believe that monetary policy did any good, but they didn’t believe it did any harm, either.)
It would take a crisis to reveal both how little common ground there was and how Panglossian even New Keynesian economics had become.
[…] saltwater economists, who had comforted themselves with the belief that the great divide in macroeconomics was narrowing, were shocked to realize that freshwater economists hadn’t been listening at all. Freshwater economists who inveighed against the stimulus didn’t sound like scholars who had weighed Keynesian arguments and found them wanting. Rather, they sounded like people who had no idea what Keynesian economics was about, who were resurrecting pre-1930 fallacies in the belief that they were saying something new and profound.
[…] Why should it take mass unemployment across the whole nation to get carpenters to move out of Nevada? Can anyone seriously claim that we’ve lost 6.7 million jobs because fewer Americans want to work? But it was inevitable that freshwater economists would find themselves trapped in this cul-de-sac: if you start from the assumption that people are perfectly rational and markets are perfectly efficient, you have to conclude that unemployment is voluntary and recessions are desirable.
Keynesian fiscal stimulus:
During a normal recession, the Fed responds by buying Treasury bills — short-term government debt — from banks. This drives interest rates on government debt down; investors seeking a higher rate of return move into other assets, driving other interest rates down as well; and normally these lower interest rates eventually lead to an economic bounceback. The Fed dealt with the recession that began in 1990 by driving short-term interest rates from 9 percent down to 3 percent. It dealt with the recession that began in 2001 by driving rates from 6.5 percent to 1 percent. And it tried to deal with the current recession by driving rates down from 5.25 percent to zero.
But zero, it turned out, isn’t low enough to end this recession. And the Fed can’t push rates below zero, since at near-zero rates investors simply hoard cash rather than lending it out. So by late 2008, with interest rates basically at what macroeconomists call the “zero lower bound” even as the recession continued to deepen, conventional monetary policy had lost all traction.
Now what? This is the second time America has been up against the zero lower bound, the previous occasion being the Great Depression. And it was precisely the observation that there’s a lower bound to interest rates that led Keynes to advocate higher government spending: when monetary policy is ineffective and the private sector can’t be persuaded to spend more, the public sector must take its place in supporting the economy. Fiscal stimulus is the Keynesian answer to the kind of depression-type economic situation we’re currently in.
What needs to change?
So here’s what I think economists have to do. First, they have to face up to the inconvenient reality that financial markets fall far short of perfection, that they are subject to extraordinary delusions and the madness of crowds. Second, they have to admit — and this will be very hard for the people who giggled and whispered over Keynes — that Keynesian economics remains the best framework we have for making sense of recessions and depressions. Third, they’ll have to do their best to incorporate the realities of finance into macroeconomics.
Many economists will find these changes deeply disturbing. It will be a long time, if ever, before the new, more realistic approaches to finance and macroeconomics offer the same kind of clarity, completeness and sheer beauty that characterizes the full neoclassical approach. To some economists that will be a reason to cling to neoclassicism, despite its utter failure to make sense of the greatest economic crisis in three generations. This seems, however, like a good time to recall the words of H. L. Mencken: “There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible and wrong.”
When it comes to the all-too-human problem of recessions and depressions, economists need to abandon the neat but wrong solution of assuming that everyone is rational and markets work perfectly. The vision that emerges as the profession rethinks its foundations may not be all that clear; it certainly won’t be neat; but we can hope that it will have the virtue of being at least partly right.