Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Structure and Microfoundations: What We Learned in the 1970s (and before)

Noah Smith provides a convenient summary of a blogospheric conversation on "microfoundations." This illustrates a key principle, which I think we should all take to heart. If one's goal is to learn macroeconomics, one's time would be much better-spent, say, by spending a year participating in Tom Sargent's NYU macro reading group than by spending a year reading the macro blogospherians.

Some of the ideas in this post can also be found in this extended piece, if you want more detail. The term "microfoundations" comes from the Phelps volume, Microeconomic foundations of employment and inflation theory (1970), which, along with Lucas's 1972 JET paper, represents the watershed in modern macroeconomics. I have never been too fond of the term "microfoundations," as this gives you the impression that the theory is somehow hidden from view - its in the foundation, and the working parts you are seeing are some kind of reduced form. For me, the theory is not just the foundation, but the walls, the roof, the plumbing, the electrical work, etc. A macroeconomic model is a coherent whole built up from all the useful economic theory we have available. The bits and pieces are the preferences, endowments, technology, and information structure, and we tie those bits and pieces together with optimizing behavior and an equilibrium concept.

Optimization is pretty weak. It's just some notion that the people living in the fictional world we have constructed are doing the best they can under the circumstances. The circumstances could be pretty bad, in that these people may not know a lot about what is going on. They may not know things about the people they are supposed to be trading with, and/or they may not be able to observe some aggregate variables, for example. There are many equilibrium concepts - standard competitive equilibrium, Nash equilibrium, pricing using bargaining solutions, competitive search, etc. All that we require from the equilibrium concept is that it coherently yields consistency among the decisions made by individuals.

Why do we do it this way? There are two reasons. First, from the point of view of doing pencil-and-paper economics, we are going to learn a lot more. Given the structure of the model, we can evaluate how changes in the technology affect the trading arrangements among economic agents, and we can evaluate how these changes affect economic welfare in a well-defined way. We can also evaluate the effects of government policies sensibly. We have been explicit about preferences in the model, so we can theoretically determine what optimal policies look like.

Second, from the point of view of practical policy evaluation - what working economists are doing - or should be doing - in the Federal Reserve System and at the U.S. Treasury, we want models that are structurally invariant to the policies that we have constructed the model to evaluate. That's what the Lucas critique is all about, though earlier writers understood what "structure" meant. That's part of what the early work (and later work too) of the Cowles Foundation was about. See in particular the 1947 quote from Koopmans here.

Structural models are useful in other fields of economics as well - not just in macro problems. A lazy econometrician would like the data to do the work for him/her, or to design the perfect experiment that he/she can run to test a particular theory, or to evaluate a particular government policy. But the value of experimental work is debatable, and much experimental work would benefit if more weight were put on the theoretical input. Oftentimes, in any field, and particularly in macroeconomics (where experiments are typically impractical and natural experiments hard to find), researchers and policy evaluators have to invest in serious theoretical and empirical tools in order to make any progress.

But how do we differentiate between what is structural and what is not? That's very subtle. We know that any model is an abstraction, and will therefore be wrong - literally. But the art of building a good model is to make it less wrong on the dimensions we are going to use it for than on the dimensions we will not use it for. Here, we need examples to show how, if we use the structural model, we are going to do "pretty well" in terms of policy evaluation, but taking the astructural approach will give us really stupid policy. The standard example, which Lucas used in his critique paper, is the Phillips curve. Following the astructural approach, I stare at the data, and observe that the unemployment rate and the inflation rate are negatively correlated. I infer that there is a tradeoff between inflation and unemployment - I can get less unemployment if the central bank acts in a way that increases the inflation rate. Central banks in the 1970s actually acted on that advice, in spite of what Milton Friedman had said in 1968, and Lucas had written down in his 1972 structural model. Friedman and Lucas advised that no long-run Phillips curve tradeoff existed, and that exploiting any short-run Phillips curve tradeoff would be the wrong thing to do. Policymakers did not listen, and then had to spend the early 1980s correcting the inflation problem they created in the 1970s.

The Phillips curve example makes Friedman and Lucas look good, but another example makes that pair look bad. Central to Old Monetarism - the Quantity Theory of Money - is the idea that we can define some subset of assets to be "money". Money, according to an Old Monetarist, is the stuff that is used as a medium of exchange, and could include public liabilities (currency and bank reserves) as well as private ones (transactions deposits at financial institutions). Further, Friedman in particular argued that one could find a stable, and simple, demand function for this "money," and estimate its parameters. Lucas does that exercise here, and then uses the estimated money demand function parameters to measure the costs of inflation.

What's wrong with that? The key problem, of course, is that the money demand function is not a structural object. Some central bankers, including Charles Goodhart, figured that out. Goodhart's idea is a bit subtle, but there are more straighforward reasons to think that the parameters we estimate as "money demand" parameters are not structural. First, all assets are to some extent useful in exchange, or as collateral. "Moneyness" is a matter of degree, and it is silly to draw a line between some assets that we call money and others which are not-money. Second, the technology determines how different assets are used in exchange. Financial innovations made asset backed securities very useful as collateral, and in financial market exchange. Those innovations changed the relationships among what we measure as monetary aggregates, inflation, asset prices, and aggregate activity. Third, regulations matter for how assets are used in exchange. Paying interest on reserves matters; paying interest on transactions deposits at banks matters; reserve requirements matter; deposit insurance matters; moral hazard problems and how they are regulated matter.

But how structural do we want to get? More structure in our models means more detail, but more detail increases technical complexity, and we want our models to be simple. The model can't be a literal description of the world, as then it would fail to be a model, which simplifies the world so we can understand it. Nevertheless, economists sometimes pay lip service to structure while writing down models that have astructural features. If you have read Woodford's Interest and Prices, you know that he cares about structure. There are plenty of references in Woodford's book to Lucas's critique paper. But some of Woodford's work looks very astructural. Some New Keynesian analysis is done in linearized models with quadratic loss functions that capture the "preferences" of policymakers. That all looks very astructural 1975, in spite of the excuses that are typically given for taking that type of approach.

Astructural stuff is all around us - habit persistence, adjustment costs, cash-in-advance constraints, money-in-the-utility-function. Sometimes those things can be convenient short-cuts, but they have to make you suspicious. In some cases, they help you fit the data - as Larry Christiano well knows - but are not well-rooted in structure.

One thing we know from long ago is that the structural approach is completely unneceessary if all we want to do is forecast the future paths of macroeconomic variables. At the Minneapolis Fed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Neil Wallace and Tom Sargent understood the Lucas critique and why structure was important for evaluating alternative economic policies. But no one objected to what Robert Litterman was doing, which was conducting forecasts using an astructural Bayesian Vector Autoregression. Indeed, one could argue that the behemoth Keynesian macroeconometric models developed at the Fed, MIT, and Penn in the 1960s and 1970s, and their modern counterparts are perfectly acceptable forecasting tools, though no one in their right mind would use those models to evaluate policy.

34 comments:

  1. The commenters on Noah's blog are the worst collection of retards I've seen since the last Tea Party rally in front of the Post Office.

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    1. What I pointed out to Noah is that many of the microeconomists' building blocks (e.g., supply and demand) are derived from the same "foundations". So I wonder why their use in macro theory is an issue but their use in micro is OK.

      In any case I do believe that economists (myself included) have a tendency to take their work too seriously. I have seen many of us use quantitative results based on unrealistic assumptions that are made solely because of their computational ease as a guide for policy action. Perhaps we should question more often the applicability of such results in a world that is so complex and in ways that matter. In general I agree with the viewpoint of Kocherlakota (http://www.minneapolisfed.org/publications_papers/pub_display.cfm?id=4428) and

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    2. Hooka Cat

      So I go read Noah's blog and one of the first comments I find writes:

      Right now, it seems like you have one camp, insisting that the economy is always close to micro perfection, and trying to explain everything aggregate in a way that maintains the illusion of perfection -- even to the point of suggesting that mass, involuntary unemployment is really spontaneous vacation-taking.

      And, the other camp is dedicated to the idea of micro-imperfection, in the form of pandemic price-sluggishness, which, in its way can be just as absurd and ignorant.

      It wouldn't be so bad, if economists made themselves irrelevant to substantive policy debate by this nonsense, but, instead, they neuter the popular will, by leaving politicians and statesmen and voters with no usable framework to identify conflicts of interest or the consequences of policy.

      Now this fellow. Bruce Wilder, has hit the nail right on the head. No wonder you attempt to discredit him in such an ugly fashion. He has described how useless you are to a "t."

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  2. You make make an observation that could be the start of something useful when you write:

    I stare at the data, and observe that the unemployment rate and the inflation rate are negatively correlated. I infer that there is a tradeoff between inflation and unemployment - I can get less unemployment if the central bank acts in a way that increases the inflation rate.

    This is how a lazy mind works. It seems some possible connection and thinks, "I am great, I have done something."

    True genius doesn't stop at the point you describe.

    A real thinker asks, What is the means or mechanism by which price influences employment?

    For example, today, we know how price could influence employment in a positive way. We have had a collapse in real estate prices. As a consequence, we know that private debt to GDP and income ratios are totally out of wack.

    Thus those who seriously thinking about our problems can postulate that inflation in housing prices might lead to an increase in consumption and a decline in unemployment (forget Friedman and Lucas).

    Of course, the devil is in the detail. How does one inflate housing prices but not car prices, for example?

    Instead of writing about microfoundations, wouldn't we be better off is you had started where you did but the discussion ended with a discussion of the need for targeted debt cancellation,if it is not possible to target inflation?

    In sum, our problems are harder and deeper, requiring more (not less thought).

    The stakes are beyond enormous. In the last ten years we have destroyed the lives of many of our young people.

    http://www.epi.org/publication/ib327-young-workers-wages/

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    1. Seems like John D really didn't understand the post at all -- how can we know what targeted debt cancellation would do if we don't have a model built up from micro behavior of households and firms?

      I used to think John D was a crackpot, but now I see he's just dumb.

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    2. Anon. finds an acorn:

      How can we know what targeted debt cancellation would do if we don't have a model built up from micro behavior of households and firms?

      Exactly my point. Why doesn't Williamson do this work? Better yet, why wasn't it done, along time ago?

      Instead of blah, blah, blah about generalities, why doesn't Williamson ever put some meat on the bones and apply the knowledge he claims to have?

      IOW, as I wrote, where he started was fine, but he didn't advance the ball any.

      For example, can one build a model for debt cancellation?

      I don't believe it can be done, but given the importance isn't that what people ought to be doing?

      In sum, the discussions here continue to be detached from reality.

      Of course, I have an advantage. Being a lawyer, I actually get out and see the facts, investigate the real world. This morning I sat through the dockets for four hours in an associate circuit court where the judge was throwing people out of their homes following foreclosures.

      The human cost, that this would be happening, here, is beyond my limited ability to describe. The looks on the faces of Americans becoming homeless ---

      Every economist ought to be sentenced to sitting in these courtrooms for 1000 hours, to see what Lucas promised wouldn't happen.

      And yet this blog still praises Lucas. Go figure.

      Then I come and read the crap I get here because I say you have a good idea, act on it.

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    3. "For example, can one build a model for debt cancellation?"

      Yes, there are a lot of people working on models of foreclosure -- Carlos Garriga, Don Schlagenhauf, Makoto Nakajima, Juan Sanchez, Irina Telyukova, Dean Corbae, Juan Carlos Hatchondo, Leo Martinez, Thomas Hintermeier, gobs of Penn graduate students. That you don't know about this work is the main problem -- go read some modern quantitative theory papers before you spout off about all things macro.

      "I don't believe it can be done, but given the importance isn't that what people ought to be doing?"

      And, as noted, they are. Try some humility, you arrogant know-it-all, and leave Bob Lucas out of the discussion.

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    4. The Crackpot SpotterMarch 14, 2012 at 11:20 AM

      "Of course, I have an advantage. Being a lawyer..."

      That is no advantage.

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    5. Economists need to learn what first week law students learn: not to make promises one can't keep, a lesson Christina Romer and Larry Summers and Lucas all missed.

      You remember Christina Romer, who is wandering around trying to regain a professional reputation trashed with the knowingly false statement that unemployment won't go North of 8%.

      No single American has done more damage to the nation than Christina Romer, although Lucas is close.

      Collectively, of course we have Bush/Cheney. Your remember deficits don't matter Cheney. Where were Lucas, Taylor, and Cochrane then?

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    6. The Hooka Cat

      As to Lucas. I will most certainly take him up. He is the worst of all.

      You remember Lucas, famous for his, we have all the answers speech.

      If true, why are Carlos Garriga, Don Schlagenhauf, Makoto Nakajima, Juan Sanchez, Irina Telyukova, Dean Corbae, Juan Carlos Hatchondo, Leo Martinez, Thomas Hintermeier, gobs of Penn graduate students going the work now on foreclosures?
      It is too late.

      We have already destroyed the lives of millions of Americans. We don't studies, we need answers.

      Besides that foreclosures aren't the problem, they are the symptom.

      Keen is the only economist I have ever read or heard who understands private debt. We have a massive overhang of private debt and no means or method to solve such.

      Williamson: How do we solve our private debt overhand?

      You cannot answer the question.

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    7. Good God you're dense. If I ever meet you, I promise to kick you right in the nuts.

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    8. i get this reaction a lot from witnesses whom cross examination has shown their incompetence to the World.

      Q. In what position were you when Cheney said, "deficits don't matter?"

      A. With my head buried in the sand and by behind in the air.

      Q. And in what position were you when Greenspan raised interest rates in 2007?

      A. With my head buried in the sand and by behind in the air?


      Q. Can you give me the name of just one person whose life your years of academic "work" has helped, but yourself?

      A. None


      Q. Do you have any answers for the problems before the Nation, before President Obama?

      A. No, None?

      Q. Of what use are you?

      A. I make models.

      Q. Are that at least pretty to observe, perhaps like a color fractal?

      No.

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    9. Heh, you're funny. In the same way the retarded kid who eats cardboard is funny.

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  3. Steve, I like this post. Quite substantive and more important than "Oh that bloody Kgman bla bla bla" Now I have good reason to add this blog on the List of blogs I would be happy to visit often.

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  4. Do you and David Andolfatto coordinate these damn things? No posts for nearly a month and suddenly you both put something up on the same day.

    Clearly a conspiracy

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    1. Actually, I'm posting from NYC, and have not seen David in weeks. We do sometimes conspire though.

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  5. Prof. Williamson, what is your view of Kocherlakota's piece I cited above? Do you believe it was a mistake to place so much emphasis during policy discussions on the results of oversimplified models?

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  6. "The key problem, of course, is that the money demand function is not a structural object. Some central bankers, including Charles Goodhart, figured that out. Goodhart's idea is a bit subtle, but there are more straighforward reasons to think that the parameters we estimate as "money demand" parameters are not structural. First, all assets are to some extent useful in exchange, or as collateral. "Moneyness" is a matter of degree, and it is silly to draw a line between some assets that we call money and others which are not-money."

    I agree with all that. But show me a model that doesn't have some variable M in which some assets are allowed to be stuffed but others aren't. Everyone draws a line.

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    1. No, that's not true. There are modeling choices to be made, but most of what we call New Monetarism has the feature that you don't define M in advance. It's in the sprit of what Neil Wallace has written about here:

      http://ideas.repec.org/a/fip/fedmqr/y1998iwinp20-26nv.22no.1.html

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    2. Ok, fair enough. I was thinking more about your L(r) variable here:

      http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/20692/1/intermediation2.pdf

      or Kiyotaki/Wright's good 0 in their 1989 paper, which they predefine as fiat money.

      I like the spirit of the Wallace paper, the model at the end does introduce some features that might induce a fiat object to circulate. But the model doesn't tell my why a particular 2.5 x 6in paper note called a US dollar circulate while 2.5 x 6in notes with Marilyn Monroe on it doesn't circulate. For some reason only certain paper bits circulate.

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    3. Or take Lagos/Wright 2005:

      "There is another object, called money, that is perfectly divisible and storable in any quantity m ≥ 0. For now the total money stock is fixed at M, but later we allow it to change over time."

      They're talking about quantities and stocks of M, not moneyness and degrees of exchangeability.

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    4. I read your paper and had a question.

      http://jpkoning.blogspot.ca/2012/03/old-monetarism-new-monetarism-and.html#comment-form

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  7. Stephen,

    Did you see Greg Ip's recent article on treasuries-as-money in the economist?

    http://www.economist.com/node/21549919

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    1. Yes, he's catching on. But he cites the work of Krishnamurthy/Vissing-Jorgensen. What I've seen of their work involves essentially putting assets in the utility function.

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    2. From what I understand of it, basically a MIU / Sidrauski-type approach, yeah: households get utility from holding liquid assets.

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    3. Anyway, seems like a shame Ip didn't talk to you guys too.

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  8. The microfoundations that is used for (freshwater and saltwater) macrofoundations is mostly empirically false and, logically, unable to describe a capitalist economy. Even if it were valid, the conclusions of these macroeconomists would not follow. This has been known for decades.

    So what we've learned is that mainstream economists, through bullying, indoctrination, and other unworthy behavior, can impose a failed research program on the world for a long time. But what would one expect from commodity fetishists?

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  9. "The microfoundations that is used for (freshwater and saltwater) macrofoundations is mostly empirically false and, logically, unable to describe a capitalist economy. Even if it were valid, the conclusions of these macroeconomists would not follow. This has been known for decades."

    It is remarkable that so many untrue statements can be packed into one short paragraph. Are you Sarah Palin by any chance?

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    1. Exactly. Saying it doesn't make it true, anonymous. I don't think you could tell us what microfoundations (or macrofoundations - whatever) are.

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    2. Addendum,

      If you feel bullied by science, good.

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  11. I was really impressed by the microfoundation when I got to know it. At least it has rescued my passion for macroeconomics from IS-LM. But how we define explicitly the utility function might be the problem when the microfoundation-model is used for policy evaluation. If the bias exists in the setup, there is no surprise that there is even bigger bias in the result, especially when we analyze in a dynamical system. Maybe premium puzzle is not a puzzle at all.

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