The state of macroeconomics: it all went wrong in 1958

Much of the recent discussion in the “state of macroeconomics” has concerned the question

* Is macroeconomics making progress?
* If not, when did it stop?

I’m not going to survey the whole debate, but I will point to a good contribution from Robert Gordon (linked by JW Mason in comments to a previous post). Gordon argues that 1978-era New Keynesian macro is better than the DSGE approach dominant today. That implies 30 years of retrogression.

My own view is even more pessimistic. On balance, I think macroeconomics has gone backwards since the discovery of the Phillips curve in 1958 [1][2]. The subsequent 50+ years has been a history of mistakes, overcorrection and partial countercorrections. To be sure, quite a lot has been learned, but as far as policy is concerned, even more has been forgotten. The result is that lots of economists are now making claims that would have been considered absurd, even by pre-Keynesian economists like Irving Fisher.

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The big issues in macroeconomics: the fiscal multiplier

The biggest theoretical issue in macroeconomics is “what causes unemployment”. As discussed in the last post, the classical answer, that unemployment is caused by problems in labor markets, is obviously wrong as an explanation of the simultaneous emergence of sustained high unemployment in many different countries. Unemployment is a macroeconomic problem.

The central macroeconomic policy issue, then, is “what, if anything, can macroeconomic policy do to move the economy back to full employment”. If you accept that, under current conditions of zero interest rates, there’s not much positive that can be done with monetary policy[1], and you stay within the bounds of mainstream policy debate, this question can be restated as “how effective is expansionary fiscal policy” or, in Keynesian terms, “how large is the fiscal multiplier in a depression”.

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The big issues in macroeconomics: unemployment

Following up my previous post, I want to look at the main areas of disagreement in macroeconomics. As well as trying to cover the issues, I’ll be making the point that the (mainstream) economics profession is so radically divided on these issues that any idea of a consensus, or even of disagreement within a broadly accepted analytical framework, is nonsense. The fact that, despite these radical disagreements, many specialists in macroeconomics don’t see a problem is, itself, part of the problem.

I’ll start with the central issue of macroeconomics, unemployment. It’s the central issue because macroeconomics begins with Keynes’ claim that a market economy can stay for substantial periods, in a situation of high unemployment and excess supply in all markets. If this claim is false, as argued by both classical and New Classical economists, then there is no need for a separate field of macroeconomics – everything can and should be derived from (standard neoclassical) microeconomics.

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How we got to Macklin

Jenny Macklin is still dealing with the response to her terse answer “I could” to the question of whether she could live on unemployment benefit. But the policy shift that led her in front of the cameras is the product of a complicated history that might be worth explanation. I’m going to go from memory, and invite commenters to supply links or corrections for my recollecitons.

The story starts in the 1960s, at a time when unemployment was very low, and spells of unemployment very short. Whether in fact or reality, the archetypal single parent was a widow. The vast majority of income support took the form of age pensions, which were means-tested and set at a very low level. Around this time Ronald Henderson estimated a poverty line at 25 per cent of average weekly earnings (AWE), well above the basic pension.

Over the late 1960s and early 1970s, pensions were increased to approximately the Henderson poverty line. In combination with some additional concessions and the introduction of Medicare, these changes virtually eliminated poverty among the old.

The changes to the value of the old age pension, relative to weekly earnings have been sustained.[1] Initially, unemployment benefits and supporting parents benefits (which replaced the former widows pension, IIRC) rose in line with the old age pension. Both were indexed to the CPI, but ad hoc adjustments kept them broadly in line with AWE. But the Howard government replaced CPI adjustment with AWE adjustment for pensions, while retaining indexation to the CPI for unemployment benefits. The result has been that the value of UB (now Newstart or some similarly Orwellian name) has fallen relative to both pensions and incomes generally.

Around 2006, the Howard government turned its attention to supporting parents, introducing a rule that recipients would go on to UB when their youngest child turned 8. At the time, the measure was strongly attacked by Labor. Here’s Penny Wong. Existing recipients were exempted (the term “grandfathered” does not seem apposite here), with the implicit promise that they would remain under the old rules. In the search for a surplus, the Gillard government decided to abandon that promise and push existing recipients with children over 8 onto UB. The question that got Macklin into trouble was about that decision.

There is a defensible case for setting the old age pension higher than UB, particularly if the government pursues active labour market policies to help the long-term unemployed find jobs. The pension needs to be enough to live on for decades, over which time household goods have to be replaced, and other long-term expenses addressed. Most spells of unemployment last only a few months, so various kinds of expenditure can be deferred. But the gap that has emerged over the past 15 years is much larger than can be justified in this way, particularly in the case of supporting parents, who are more likely to spend long periods out of employment. Instead of completing the Howard agenda, the Gillard government ought to be looking at increasing the real value of benefits, allowing the unemployed to share in some of the growth in incomes for the community as a whole.

fn1. In other respect, showever, the generosity of the pension system peaked around 1980. Means tests, which were eliminated in the 1970s, were reintroduced in the 1980s, and the pension age has gradually increased.

Could Jenny Macklin live on the dole?

She says “I could”, but you watch the video, Jenny Macklin’s answer here is very odd. She ducks the question once, has it put again, and is asked “Could you live on the dole”. She says “I could”, without any elaboration then goes straight back to spin. Her office then tries to delete it from the transcript.

It’s such a spectacular screwup, I think she must have imagined she was saying something different. But, whether or not that’s right, she, and the government, deserve all the pain they get for this piece of nastiness.

The (failed) state of macroeconomics (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

When econbloggers aren’t arguing about cyborgs, they spend a fair bit of time arguing about the state of macroeconomics[1], that is, the analysis of aggregate employment and unemployment, inflation and economic growth. Noah Smith has a summary of what’s been said, which I won’t recapitulate. Instead, I’ll give my take on some of the issues that have been raised (what follows is inevitably monkish wonkish)

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Happy New Year

A quick post to wish my readers all the best for 2013. I’ll put up some substantive posts and open threads soon, but in the meantime, feel free to express your wishes for 2013. Just for this post, I’d like everyone to accentuate the positive and avoid conflict with other commenters. Normal service will resume soon.