Not your father’s macroeconomics

The decision of the Fed not to raise interest rates raises some immediate doubts about the future of the economy; though, I question the validity of these doubts. Has the Fed been at the helm of the economy in a meaningful way over the past few years? I would argue that at most it has been a standard-bearer that the economy has looked up to since the Great Depression, but for a long time, there has been a disconnect between the actions of the economy and Fed policy. Just looking at the immediate trends: unemployment is low at less than 4% and interest rates are still near-zero when compared to historical averages. Is there an issue with this? Not really, unless you take stock in the Phillips Curve — the same curve taught today in many intermediate macro courses, but has been thoroughly debunked since the beginning of stagflation in the 1970s.

So what does this mean? Justin Wolfers sums it up nicely:

Fine tuning the economy is over… Controlling for u and r in face on inflation fails muster; the rudders connected to this helm aren’t as large or as sensitive as previous thought.

The discipline of economics is changing for the better. Two years ago, David Wilson Sloane claimed that economics as we know it is dead The stories economics uses to explain the world are extremely useful, but in all their explanatory power, they are merely fictions that simplify the world into understandable pieces. (I don’t mean to understate their importance, only to state that economics can go further. For all it’s simplifying, economics during the past century has had truly brilliant insights.) Macroeconomics is currently at sort of crossroads, one that will help define the discipline for generations to come. The useful fictions can be maintained, but their explanatory power can be made to be more robust through the integration of economic thought with the processes and knowledge of other sciences towards a common goal of creating a more humane science. Beinhocker et al. sum it all up in a recent response to their neoclassical counterparts, “We believe that in order for economics to progress it needs to fully embrace a transdisciplinary approach and modernize a number of its key concepts.” The authors of that essay come from a wide variety of backgrounds and believe that their combined insights allow for more perfect version of the truth. Given the exponential nature of combinatorial interactions, I am sympathetic to this claim.

They posit that economics can do three things to increase its explanatory power:

  1. Most of us admit to the downfall of homo economicus, we should bring in insights from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, etc. to advance the understanding of homo sapien.
  2. Heterogeneity goes mostly unexplored in neoclassical because most things are generalized to help simplify things. Complexity thrives in a heterogenous space; people are not homogenous.
  3. We need to look at the economy from the systems level. (I’m most in tune with with this action.)

In an aside to all of this by Dani Rodrick, he claims that we must take up FDR’s credo of nothing less than “bold, persistent experimentation” in order to advance the field. I couldn’t agree more.

You might find yourself asking, “Where will macroeconomics take us next?” That’s not the question we should be asking. The better question is: Where will we take macroeconomics?

One final thought, Noah Smith is right, the Fed is our scapegoat no matter what happens.

 

Author: Deric Tilson

I am a classically-trained economist and doctoral student at George Mason. I'm an ecopragmatist and interested in the cross-section where economics, ecology, and ethology meet. I hope to work for non-for-profits specializing in economic development and eventually moving to either the public sector or a think tank. My research interests include the political economy of war, resource economics, the applications of complexity theory, the mitigation of risk by impoverished individuals, and global water scarcity.

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