Tyler Cowen's Ultimate Milton Friedman Post
The Future of Macro: Barry Eichengreen's Take

The State of Macro Today

Paul Krugman's summary:

How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?: [R]ereading Friedman’s 1970 summary of his ideas, “A Theoretical Framework for Monetary Analysis,” what’s striking is how Keynesian it seems. And Friedman certainly never bought into the idea that mass unemployment represents a voluntary reduction in work effort or the idea that recessions are actually good for the economy. Yet the current generation of freshwater economists has been making both arguments. Thus Chicago’s Casey Mulligan suggests that unemployment is so high because many workers are choosing not to take jobs: “Employees face financial incentives that encourage them not to work . . . decreased employment is explained more by reductions in the supply of labor (the willingness of people to work) and less by the demand for labor (the number of workers that employers need to hire).” Mulligan has suggested, in particular, that workers are choosing to remain unemployed because that improves their odds of receiving mortgage relief. And Cochrane declares that high unemployment is actually good: “We should have a recession. People who spend their lives pounding nails in Nevada need something else to do.”

Personally, I think this is crazy. 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.

Yet if the crisis has pushed freshwater economists into absurdity, it has also created a lot of soul-searching among saltwater economists. Their framework, unlike that of the Chicago School, both allows for the possibility of involuntary unemployment and considers it a bad thing. But the New Keynesian models that have come to dominate teaching and research assume that people are perfectly rational and financial markets are perfectly efficient. To get anything like the current slump into their models, New Keynesians are forced to introduce some kind of fudge factor that for reasons unspecified temporarily depresses private spending. (I’ve done exactly that in some of my own work.) And if the analysis of where we are now rests on this fudge factor, how much confidence can we have in the models’ predictions about where we are going?

The state of macro, in short, is not good. So where does the profession go from here?...

Recent events have pretty decisively refuted the idea that recessions are an optimal response to fluctuations in the rate of technological progress; a more or less Keynesian view is the only plausible game in town. Yet standard New Keynesian models left no room for a crisis like the one we’re having, because those models generally accepted the efficient-market view of the financial sector.

There were some exceptions. One line of work, pioneered by none other than Ben Bernanke working with Mark Gertler of New York University, emphasized the way the lack of sufficient collateral can hinder the ability of businesses to raise funds and pursue investment opportunities. A related line of work, largely established by my Princeton colleague Nobuhiro Kiyotaki and John Moore of the London School of Economics, argued that prices of assets such as real estate can suffer self-reinforcing plunges that in turn depress the economy as a whole. But until now the impact of dysfunctional finance hasn’t been at the core even of Keynesian economics. Clearly, that has 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.... 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.”...

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.

I would add that there has always been another macro separate from the universities--the macro of the economic forecasters and of the central banks, which has, I think, been in a relatively healthy state for quite a while...