What Kind of Inequality Matters?

Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a thorough analysis of the causes and effects of inequality, recently became an international best-seller. It’s not often that thousand page economic treatises attract popular attention, so clearly there’s something important to discuss here. Looking at some of the data on inequality, it’s not hard to see why many people are concerned. Here’s a chart showing the share of income held by the top 10% in the United States since 1910:

Notice where the two peaks occur – 1929 and 2009. I seem to recall something important happening in each of those years. Whether inequality was a symptom or a cause of the broader problems that led to the Great Depression and the Great Recession is an interesting question and definitely deserves scrutiny. For the purposes of this post, however, I want to address a simpler topic. Should we care about inequality on its own? And, more specifically, what kind of inequality should we care about?

For the first question, let’s do a simple thought experiment. You can choose to live in one of two societies. In Society A, everybody makes $50,000 per year no matter what their profession is. LeBron James and a janitor get paid the same amount. In Society B, average income is the same $50,000 per year, but it is now dispersed, so that some people earn less than average and some earn far more. Now assume that you are guaranteed to begin at average income (to avoid questions of risk aversion). Which society would you rather live in?

The answer to the hypothetical depends in part on whether you care about absolute or relative income. Does it matter if you are rich, or does it only matter if you are richer than others? In Society A everybody is on the same level, which might seem to be an appealing feature.

Except as soon as we start to think a bit harder, we realize that people in Society A aren’t equal at all. At least to some extent, differences in income do come from differences in effort. Some people work harder than others. Should people get paid the same regardless of effort?

Of course, this reasoning attacks a bit of a straw man. Hardly anybody would argue for full equality of income. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some situations where reducing income inequality could be helpful. I don’t believe in free will, which means that I think that where you are today is determined by circumstances you had no control over. But even with free will, it’s impossible to deny that some people are luckier than others. Some people are born into families with higher incomes or better connections. Some people are just smarter, or more talented. Two people can put in the same amount of effort and come out with wildly different outcomes. Isn’t there some justification for correcting these kinds of inequalities?

Now we need to bring in the second question: what kind of inequality matters? To this point, I have focused entirely on income inequality, but money is only as good as what you can buy with it. Somebody who earns $1,000,000 per year but saves $950,000 is no better off than someone who earns $50,000 per year (until they start spending those savings of course). We also need to consider a dynamic component to inequality. The chart above shows only a snapshot of inequality at one point in time, but there is large variation in earnings over a person’s lifetime. So a better measure of the kind of inequality that actually matters would be total lifetime consumption inequality (due to measurement difficulties, the question of whether consumption and income inequality move together is still under debate – see a nice survey here).

But we’re still not quite there. Why do we consume anything? Presumably because it makes us happy, or, in the words of an economist, because it gives us utility. Simply giving people more stuff might not actually help them at all unless it’s stuff they actually want. So shouldn’t we actually care about total lifetime utility? And as soon as we jump into the world of utility, the problem gets much more difficult.

Consider an extremely wealthy person. Incredibly talented and smart, he excelled in school, founded a business, and became one of the most successful CEOs in the world. He has a beautiful house, ten expensive cars, flat screen TVs, season tickets to the Patriots. He can buy anything you could ever want. Except he works all the time, hates his job, and has no time for his family or friends. Despite his money, despite his consumption, he is miserable.

Another individual earns far less. She isn’t poor, but she earns right around median income. She doesn’t have a luxurious life, but she can afford the basics. More importantly, she’s happy. She has a loving family, great friends, a job she likes. Would she be happier with more income? Probably. But she doesn’t need luxuries to live a good life.

How do we make this society more equal? Simply looking at income would suggest a transfer from the wealthy man to the average income woman. This transfer would of course reduce income inequality, but it would increase utility inequality. The woman is already pretty happy and the man is not. Taking money from him and giving it to her would only increase the happiness gap. Is this outcome desirable? I don’t think so.

Then maybe we should try to minimize utility inequality. But how? Taking money from the woman would probably reduce the woman’s utility and eventually it would be as low as the man’s, but giving it to the man would probably do little to increase the man’s utility unless he takes comfort in the fact that others are as miserable as he is. The woman’s happiness comes from pieces of her life that can’t be transferred to others. Despite being born with all the skills necessary to succeed, the man would likely view the woman as the more fortunate one.

In general, trying to equalize utility gives some strange implications. Let give a few more examples.

Two people work in the exact same job and get paid the same wage. Seems perfectly fair. But what if one of them enjoys working and the other hates it? In dollars per hour, they are equal. In utility per hour, one receives more than the other. Reducing utility inequality would require that people who enjoy their jobs be paid less for the same work.

Some people prefer living in cities while others would prefer to live in smaller towns. Houses in cities are usually much more expensive, which means to achieve the same utility, a city lover will have to pay far more. In this case, income equality greatly benefits people who hate cities. Utility equality would suggest transfers from people who love rural areas to those who love cities.

Consumption equality could also generate large utility inequality. If one person places a lot of meaning on material goods while another values other aspects of their life, they would need different levels of consumption in order to achieve the same utility. Should we give more to the materialist than the ascetic simply because giving to the latter wouldn’t help them anyway?

And even these examples ignore the largest problem with trying to achieve equality in utility – it’s difficult to measure and impossible to compare across individuals. I have trouble defining my own preferences and determining what makes me the happiest, I certainly don’t trust others to do that for me.

So utility equality is probably not an option even if it were desirable. But income equality almost certainly worsens the problem of utility inequality. The people who make a lot of money are much more likely to also be people who place a high value on money. Those who earn less are more likely to enjoy a simpler life. In fact, there is little evidence that the rich are any happier than the rest of us. Taking their money makes them even worse off while helping those who are already pretty happy despite their relatively low income. The happy get happier while the miserable get more miserable.

Notice that I have deliberately avoided using examples with truly poor people. I can certainly see an argument for redistributing income to the poorest. Nobody should have to live at subsistence levels if they are willing to work. But being concerned about poverty and being concerned about inequality are not the same. It is possible for a society to have zero poor people and still be incredibly unequal and also possible to be almost perfectly equal with everybody poor (as it was for most of the history of human existence).

Have we gotten any closer to answering the original question? What kind of inequality should we care about? If you’ve made it this far, it should be clear that there isn’t an easy answer. We often use the term “less fortunate” as a euphemism for poor people and that almost exclusively refers to poverty in a monetary context. We view income as if it came from a lottery and then aim to use redistribution to correct for discrepancies. Why is that? Aren’t people that can be happy despite low income really the most fortunate? Isn’t money just one of many factors that matter for a person’s happiness? And aren’t many of these other factors difficult to measure and even more difficult to redistribute?

If we answer yes to the above questions, reducing the kind of inequality we care about becomes a much harder task. Can we really correct the deeper inequalities that arise due to people’s preferences and talents – some of which will lead to higher incomes and some not? Or should we accept that inequality is an essential part of society, accept that treating everyone equally necessarily produces inequality in outcomes, that differences in wealth don’t necessarily lead to differences in happiness, and that correcting differences in happiness is almost impossible?

What’s Wrong With Modern Macro? Part 13 No Other Game in Town

Part 13 in a series of posts on modern macroeconomics. Previous posts in this series have pointed out many problems with DSGE models. This post aims to show that these problems have either been (in my opinion wrongly) dismissed or ignored by most of the profession. 


“If you have an interesting and coherent story to tell, you can tell it in a DSGE model. If you cannot, your story is incoherent.”

The above quote comes from a testimony given by prominent Minnesota macroeconomist V.V. Chari to the House of Representatives in 2010 as they attempted to determine how economists could have missed an event as large as the Great Recession. Chari argues that although macroeconomics does have room to improve, it has made substantial progress in the last 30 years and there is nothing fundamentally wrong with its current path.

Of course, not everybody has been so kind to macroeconomics. Even before the crisis, prominent macroeconomists had begun voicing some concerns about the current state of macroeconomic research. Here’s Robert Solow in 2003:

The original impulse to look for better or more explicit micro foundations was probably reasonable. It overlooked the fact that macroeconomics as practiced by Keynes and Pigou was full of informal microfoundations. (I mention Pigou to disabuse everyone of the notion that this is some specifically Keynesian thing.) Generalizations about aggregative consumption-saving patterns, investment patterns, money-holding patterns were always rationalized by plausible statements about individual–and, to some extent, market–behavior. But some formalization of the connection was a good idea. What emerged was not a good idea. The preferred model has a single representative consumer optimizing over infinite time with perfect foresight or rational expectations, in an environment that realizes the resulting plans more or less flawlessly through perfectly competitive forward-looking markets for goods and labor, and perfectly flexible prices and wages.

How could anyone expect a sensible short-to-medium-run macroeconomics to come out of that set-up?
Solow (2003) – Dumb and Dumber in Macroeconomics

Olivier Blanchard in 2008:

There is, however, such a thing as too much convergence. To caricature, but only slightly: A macroeconomic article today often follows strict, haiku-like, rules: It starts from a general equilibrium structure, in which individuals maximize the expected present value of utility, firms maximize their value, and markets clear. Then, it introduces a twist, be it an imperfection or the closing of a particular set of markets, and works out the general equilibrium implications. It then performs a numerical simulation, based on calibration, showing that the model performs well. It ends with a welfare assessment.

Such articles can be great, and the best ones indeed are. But, more often than not, they suffer from some of the flaws I just discussed in the context of DSGEs: Introduction of an additional ingredient in a benchmark model already loaded with questionable assumptions. And little or no independent validation for the added ingredient.
Olivier Blanchard (2008) – The State of Macro

And more recently, the vitriolic critique of Paul Romer:

Would you want your child to be treated by a doctor who is more committed to his friend the anti-vaxer and his other friend the homeopath than to medical science? If not, why should you expect that people who want answers will keep paying attention to economists after they learn that we are more committed to friends than facts.
Romer (2016) – The Trouble with Macroeconomics

These aren’t empty critiques by no-name graduate student bloggers. Robert Solow and Paul Romer are two of the biggest names in growth theory in the last 50 years. Olivier Blanchard was the chief economist at the IMF. One would expect that these criticisms would cause the profession to at least strongly consider a re-evaluation of its methods. Looking at the recent trends in the literature as well as my own experience doing macroeconomic research, it hasn’t. Not even close. Instead, it seems to have doubled down on the DSGE paradigm, falling much closer to Chari’s point of view that “there is no other game in town.”

But it’s even worse than that. Taken at its broadest, sticking to DSGE models is not too restrictive. Dynamic simply means that the models have a forward looking component, which is obviously an important feature to include in a macroeconomic model. Stochastic means there should be some randomness, which again is probably a useful feature (although I do think deterministic models can be helpful as well – more on this later). General equilibrium is a little harder to swallow, but it still provides a good measure of flexibility.

Even within the DSGE framework, however, straying too far from the accepted doctrines of macroeconomics is out of the question. Want to write a paper that deviates from rational expectations? You better have a really good reason. Never mind that survey and experimental evidence shows large differences in how people form expectations, or the questionable assumption that everybody in the model knows the model and takes it as truth, or that the founder of rational expectations John Muth later said:

It is a little surprising that serious alternatives to rational expectations have never been proposed. My original paper was largely a reaction against very naive expectations hypotheses juxtaposed with highly rational decision-making behavior and seems to have been rather widely misinterpreted.
Quoted in Hoover (2013) – Rational Expectations: Retrospect and Prospect

Using an incredibly strong assumption like rational expectations is accepted without question. Any deviation requires explanation. Why? As far as I can tell, it’s just Kevin Malone economics: that’s the way it has always been done and nobody has any incentive to change it. And so researchers all get funneled into making tiny changes to existing frameworks – anything truly new is actively discouraged.

Now, of course, there are reasons to be wary of change. It would be a waste to completely ignore the path that brought us to this point and, despite their flaws, I’m sure there have been some important insights generated by the DSGE research program (although to be honest I’m having trouble thinking of any). Maybe it really is the best we can do. But wouldn’t it at least be worth devoting some time to alternatives? I would estimate that 99.99% of theoretical business cycle papers published in top 5 journals are based around DSGE models. Chari wasn’t exaggerating when he said there is no other game in town.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were? Is there any reason other than tradition that every single macroeconomics paper needs to follow the exact same structure, to draw from the same set restrictive set of assumptions? If even 10% of the time and resources devoted to tweaking existing models was instead spent on coming up with entirely new ways of doing macroeconomic research I have no doubt that a viable alternative could be found. And there already are some (again, more on this later), but they exist only on the fringes of the profession. I think it’s about time for that to change.

What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? A discussion of altruism, selfishness, and morality

I think most people believe that the world would be a better place if more people acted altruistically. Rather than focusing on trying to improve their own life, people should think about what they can do to help others. But the more I think about it, the less confident I am that an altruistic society is really something we should strive for.

Let’s take an example. Two people are contemplating volunteering at a center for homeless children. Person A absolutely hates their time there, but they know that the kids benefit, so they reduce their own well being out of a sense of moral duty and do it anyway. For person B, spending time with the kids is the highlight of their week. They know that they are helping the kids, but their primary motivation comes from having fun themselves.

Two questions come out of this example. First, can we really say that either person is acting selflessly? Although initially it would appear that at least person A is selfless, are they really acting against their own interest? Sure they don’t enjoy the time they spend volunteering, but if it makes them feel better about themselves, isn’t that as selfish a motivation as any other? As I discussed in my post on rationality, to an economist selfishness means nothing more than choosing the path that maximizes total (expected) happiness for a person. Person A values being a moral person and even if it comes with a short-term cost, they are willing to bear that cost because the benefit (being free of guilt, reputation, getting into heaven, the knowledge that they did something good, etc.) is even higher.

An even more interesting question comes when we try to evaluate which of the two people is more altruistic. I think it is natural to assume that altruism requires some amount of sacrifice. Even though the end result in the above example is the same – the kids are happy in either case – person B is just satisfying their own desires. How can they be altruistic? And I think that intuition is correct. If we want to make a meaningful distinction between altruism and selfishness, altruism needs to include some kind of sacrifice. If I act without thinking of others, my actions cannot be altruistic even if they coincidentally end up helping others. An entrepreneur that invents a cure for cancer in order to sell it isn’t altruistic even though they save the lives of millions of people. On the other hand, if I actively try to improve the lives of others even when I know it will hurt my happiness in the short run, we can call those truly altruistic actions.

But this definition of altruism makes it difficult to see the appeal of an altruistic society. Is a society where people help others only out of some sense of obligation, where I give only to satisfy some moral code, truly better than one where people love to give away? Would you want to live in a world full of people who act altruistically, constantly sacrificing their own well-being in order to improve the well-being of others? Or would you rather live somewhere where people act to make themselves happy, but their happiness comes directly from helping others?

Of course, the above dichotomy excludes a third outcome, one where everybody acts for themselves at the expense of others. Most would agree that this is by far the worst of the three societies. I definitely agree that our goal should be to avoid this result. The way to do that, however, doesn’t have to come from laws. It doesn’t have to come from religion. It doesn’t have to come from duty or obligation. Forcing people to do good might be effective, but wouldn’t it be a better society when people want to do good?

Fortunately, I think humans have evolved in such a way where we do feel good when we help others. Most of life’s best experiences come from our relationships with others. Love. Friendship. Family. Trust. Gratitude. Respect. Those feelings are some of the most valuable pieces of a happy life. They are impossible to achieve without other people. Someone might be able to get ahead in a purely materialistic sense by seeing their own well-being as their only concern. They’ll get more wealth. More fame. But not more happiness. The best way to get people to act selflessly is to make them aware of the fact that helping others is the best way to help themselves.

An altruistic society consists of a bunch of unhappy people doing their best to make other people feel happy. They help others despite the fact that it makes them feel bad. An ideal society, in my opinion, is one where people help others because it makes them feel good.

What’s Wrong With Modern Macro? Part 12 Models and Theories

Part 12 in a series of posts on modern macroeconomics. This post draws inspiration from Axel Leijonhufvud’s distinction between models and theories in order to argue that the current procedure of performing macroeconomic research is flawed.


In a short 1997 article, Axel Leijonhufvud gives an interesting argument that economists too often fail to differentiate between models and theories. In his words,

For many years now, ‘model’ and ‘theory’ have been widely used as interchangeable terms in the profession. I want to plead the case that there is a useful distinction to be made. I propose to conceive of economic ‘theories’ as sets of beliefs about the economy and how it functions. They refer to the ‘real world’ – that curious expression that economists use when it occurs to them that there is one. ‘Models’ are formal but partial representations of theories. A model never encompasses the entire theory to which it refers.
Leijonhufvud (1997) – Models and Theories

The whole article is worth reading and it highlights a major problem with macroeconomic research: we don’t have a good way to determine when a theory is wrong. Standard economic theory has placed a large emphasis on models. Focusing on mathematical models ensures that assumptions are laid out clearly and that the implications of those assumptions are internally consistent. However, this discipline also constrains models to be relatively simple. I might have some grand theory of how the economy works, but even if my theory is entirely accurate, there is little chance that it can be converted into a tractable set of mathematical equations.

The result of this discrepancy between model and theory makes it very difficult to judge the success or failure of a theory based on the success or failure of a model. As discussed in an earlier post, we begin from the premise that all models are wrong and therefore it shouldn’t be at all surprising when a model fails to match some feature of reality. When a model is disproven along some margin, there are two paths a researcher can take: reject the theory or modify the assumptions of the model to better fit the theory. Again quoting Leijonhufvud,

When a model fails, the conclusion nearest to hand is that some simplifying assumption or choice of empirical proxy-variable is to blame, not that one’s beliefs about the way the world works are wrong. So one looks around for a modified model that will be a better vehicle for the same theory.
Leijonhufvud (1997) – Models and Theories

A good example of this phenomenon comes from looking at the history of Keynesian theory over the last 50 years. When the Lucas critique essentially dismantled the Keynesian research program in the 1980s, economists who believed in Keynesian insights could have rejected that theory of the world. Instead, they adopted neoclassical models but tweaked them in such a way that produced results that were still consistent with Keynesian theory. New Keynesian models today include rational expectations and microfoundations. Many hours have been spent converting Keynes’s theory into fancy mathematical language, adding (sometimes questionable) frictions into the neoclassical framework to coax it into giving Keynesian results. But how does that help us understand the world? Have any of these advances increased our understanding of economics beyond what Keynes already knew 80 years ago? I have my doubts.

Macroeconomic research today works on the assumption that any good theory can be written as a mathematical model. Within that class of theories, the gold standard are those that are tractable enough to give analytical solutions. Restricting the set of acceptable models in this way probably helps throw out a lot of bad theories. What I worry is that it also precludes many good ones. By imposing such tight constraints on what a good macroeconomic theory is supposed to look like we also severely constrain our vision of a theoretical economy. Almost every macroeconomic paper draws from a tiny selection of functional forms for preferences and production because any deviation quickly adds too much complexity and leads to systems of equations that are impossible to solve.

But besides restricting the set of theories, speaking in models also often makes it difficult to understand the broader logic that drove the creation of the model. As Leijonhufvud puts it, “formalism in economics makes it possible to know precisely what someone is saying. But it often leaves us in doubt about what exactly he or she is talking about.” Macroeconomics has become very good at laying out a set of assumptions and deriving the implications of those assumptions. Where it often fails is in describing how we can compare that simplified world to the complex one we live in. What is the theory that underlies the assumptions that create an economic model? Where do the model and the theory differ and how might that affect the results? These questions seem to me to be incredibly important for conducting sound economic research. They are almost never asked.

Why Do We Love Football? A Tale of Seven Super Bowls

It’s been a while since my last blog post and I needed a break from writing about economics and politics, so here’s a post on another important part of my life: football (for my international friends, I mean real football, not that silly game where they actually use their feet)


Source: Wikimedia Commons

February 1, 2015: Undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler runs onto the field in a game that is all but over. 2nd and goal on the 1. Up by 4. Beast Mode ready across the line of scrimmage. But he’s seen this play before. In an instant, certain defeat has transformed into sure victory – and utter misery into sheer euphoria.

Why do we love football? For millions of people, Sundays from September to February have a single purpose – they put their lives on hold to watch a bunch of strangers play what is, on the surface, just a game. I am one of those people. But I’ve often wondered why we care so much about the result of a game that will seemingly have no real effects. Whether the Patriots win or lose, my life goes on essentially unchanged. And yet I spent Super Bowl Sunday pacing around my apartment so tense you would have thought my life depended on it. Why? Aren’t there more important things in life than stupid games?

February 5, 2012: The ball is in his hands. Wes Welker. One of the most sure handed receivers in the history of the NFL. The pass is a bit high, but the ball is in his hands. Until it isn’t. The catch that should have sealed the game ends instead with number 83 lying on the ground, only his head left in his hands.

And why do players and coaches dedicate their lives to this game? Sure some get fame. Some get respect. Some get paid large sums of money. But is that really enough to justify spending every waking hour preparing to play a game that will almost certainly be detrimental to players’ future health? Is it enough to justify staying up late at night watching film to gain even the slightest advantage over another team, or spending a large portion of the year on the road away from their families?

February 3, 2008: An undefeated season on the line. Maybe the best offense to ever play this game has been held to a meager 14 points. And yet somehow they’re up by 4 with 2 minutes to go. Eli Manning breaks away from defenders (who were held) and throws up a prayer. There’s no chance he catches this. It lands on the helmet of David Tyree. There’s no chance he catches this. Rodney Harrison’s arms come inches from the ball. There’s no chance he catches this. He falls to the ground, ball pinned to his head. He caught it.

Perhaps it’s just our savage desire for violence. Does our love of the pigskin come from the same place as the Romans’ love for the gladiators? Is it some sort of evolutionary instinct that compels us to watch grown men beat each other up for 60 minutes? Maybe our ancestors will look back on us with a mix of surprise and disgust. They were entertained by that?! Barbarians!

February 6, 2005: Dynasty. It’s something that’s not supposed to happen in the NFL. The league is designed around the concept of parity. 3 Super Bowls in 4 years? Unheard of. Unheard of, that is, until Tom Brady and Bill Belichick became the ultimate football pair.

We’re not getting anywhere. In fact, football seems like a terrible creation, a blight to be eliminated from a refined society. So let’s talk about something else. Why do we love art? Is it because it looks beautiful? Of course that must be part of it, but I think there’s something deeper. A Picasso painting isn’t beautiful in the common sense of the word, but we still find something about it enticing. It’s unique. Something nobody else in the world could have done. All forms of entertainment share this characteristic. They appeal to us in a purely materialistic sense – because we like what we see and hear. But they also offer us a glimpse at the incredible person behind the creation.

February 1, 2004: Tie game with 4 seconds left. For any normal person the pressure would be suffocating. For Adam Vinatieri it’s just another day at the office. Statisticians say “clutch” doesn’t actually exist. Obviously they haven’t met Mr. Clutch himself.

No other human being on the planet could make the catches made by Odell Beckham. Nobody else can throw a Hail Mary like Aaron Rodgers. To be the absolute best at something, anything, is an experience the vast majority of us can never have (to quote Homer Simpson: “No matter how good you are at something, there’s always about a million people better than you”). But we absolutely love watching those that can. Football offers an opportunity for people to be great. And we love greatness. We love seeing people dedicating their lives to something, becoming the best they can possibly be.

February 3, 2002: The Greatest Show on Turf against a no-name backup quarterback. Nobody gave him a chance. Even with the game tied late in the 4th quarter, the announcers count him out. Just take a knee and play for overtime says John Madden. Instead, he leads the team down the field and Vinatieri splits the uprights for the victory. 

We love the stories. Teams on the brink of defeat that never give up and come through with a win. Players that are counted out from the beginning but show up every day determined to prove the world wrong. And these stories are driven by talented individuals pushing themselves to the limits, breaking the boundaries of what people thought was possible.

February 5, 2017: 28-3. Few Super Bowls have been so one-sided. One team has dominated on both sides of the ball. Their quarterback has a perfect passer rating. Their defense puts pressure on the QB despite lockdown coverage in the secondary. No team has ever come back from more than 10 in a Super Bowl. But no other team has had Tom Brady.

A Picasso painting. A Mozart symphony. A Spielberg film. And a Tom Brady Super Bowl? Many will say I’m crazy to put these in the same category, but I find it hard to find a good reason why they shouldn’t be. The product is different and whether people appreciate one form over another will always come down to a subjective value judgement. Some people are bored to tears by museums. Others can’t stand watching sports. But the final product is less important than the once in a lifetime talent and dedication that created it.

April 16, 2000: With the 199th pick in the NFL draft, the New England Patriots draft Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. Nobody knows it yet, but he’s destined to become the best quarterback of all time, a symbol of everything we love about the game of football.

What’s Wrong With Modern Macro? Part 11 Building on a Broken Foundation

Part 11 in a series of posts on modern macroeconomics. The discussion to this point has focused on the early contributions to DSGE modeling by Kydland and Prescott. Obviously, in the last 30 years, economic research has advanced beyond their work. In this post I will argue that it has advanced in the wrong direction.


In Part 3 of this series I outlined the Real Business Cycle (RBC) model that began macroeconomics on its current path. The rest of the posts in this series have offered a variety of reasons why the RBC framework fails to provide an adequate model of the economy. An easy response to this criticism is that it was never intended to be a final answer to macroeconomic modeling. Even if Kydland and Prescott’s model misses important features of a real economy doesn’t it still provide a foundation to build upon? Since the 1980s, the primary agenda of macroeconomic research has been to build on this base, to relax some of the more unrealistic assumptions that drove the original RBC model and to add new assumptions to better match economic patterns seen in the data.

New Keynesian Models

Part of the appeal of the RBC model was its simplicity. Driving business cycles was a single shock: exogenous changes in TFP attributed to changes in technology. However, the real world is anything but simple. In many ways, the advances in the methods used by macroeconomists in the 1980s came only at the expense of a rich understanding of the complex interactions of a market economy. Compared to Keynes’s analysis 50 years earlier, the DSGE models of the 1980s seem a bit limited.

What Keynes lacked was clarity. 80 years after the publication of the General Theory, economists still debate “what Keynes really meant.” For all of their faults, DSGE models at the very least guarantee clear exposition (assuming you understand the math) and internal consistency. New Keynesian (NK) models attempt to combine these advantages with some of the insights of Keynes.

The simplest distinction between an RBC model and an NK model is the assumptions made about the flexibility of prices. In early DSGE models, prices (including wages) were assumed to be fully flexible, constantly adjusting in order to ensure that all markets cleared. The problem (or benefit depending on your point of view) with perfectly flexible prices is that it makes it difficult for policy to have any impact. Combining rational expectations with flexible prices means monetary shocks cannot have any real effects. Prices and wages simply adjust immediately to return to the same allocation of real output.

To reintroduce a role for policy, New Keynesians instead assume that prices are sticky. Now when a monetary shock hits the economy firms are unable to change their price so they respond to the higher demand by increasing real output. As research in the New Keynesian program developed, more and more was added to the simple RBC base. The first RBC model was entirely frictionless and included only one shock (to TFP). It could be summarized in just a few equations. A more recent macro model, The widely cited Smets and Wouters (2007), adds frictions like investment adjustment costs, variable capital utilization, habit formation, and inflation indexing in addition to 7 structural shocks, leading to dozens of equilibrium equations.

Building on a Broken Foundation

New Keynesian economists have their heart in the right place. It’s absolutely true that the RBC model produces results at odds with much of reality. Attempting to move the model closer to the data is certainly an admirable goal. But, as I have argued in the first 10 posts of this series, the RBC model fails not so much because it abstracts from the features we see in real economies, but because the assumptions it makes are not well suited to explain economic interactions in the first place.

New Keynesian models do almost nothing to address the issues I have raised. They still rely on aggregating firms and consumers into representative entities that offer only the illusion of microfoundations rather than truly deriving aggregate quantities from realistic human behavior. They still assume rational expectations, meaning every agent believes that the New Keynesian model holds and knows that every other agent also believes it holds when they make their decisions. And they still make quantitative policy proposals by assuming a planner that knows the entire economic environment.

One potential improvement of NK models over their RBC counterparts is less reliance on (potentially misspecified) technology shocks as the primary driver of business cycle fluctuations. The “improvement,” however, comes only by introducing other equally suspect shocks. A paper by V.V. Chari, Patrick Kehoe, and Ellen McGrattan argues that four of the “structural shocks” in the Smets-Wouters setup do not have a clear interpretation. In other words, although the shocks can help the model match the data, the reason why they are able to do so is not entirely clear. For example, one of the shocks in the model is a wage markup over the marginal productivity of a worker. The authors argue that this could be caused either by increased bargaining power (through unions, etc.), which would call for government intervention to break up unions, or through an increased preference for leisure, which is an efficient outcome and requires no policy. The Smets-Wouters model can say nothing about which interpretation is more accurate and is therefore unhelpful in prescribing policy to improve the economy.

Questionable Microfoundations

I mentioned above that the main goal of the New Keynesian model was to revisit the features Keynes talked about decades ago using modern methods. In today’s macro landscape, microfoundations have become essential. Keynes spoke in terms of broad aggregates, but without understanding how those aggregates are derived from optimizing behavior at a micro level they fall into the Lucas critique. But although the NK model attempts to put in more realistic microfoundations, many of its assumptions seem at odds with the ways in which individuals actually act.

Take the assumption of sticky prices. It’s probably a valid assumption to include in an economic model. With no frictions, an optimizing firm would want to change its price every time new economic data became available. Obviously that doesn’t happen as many goods stay at a constant price for months or years. So of course if we want to match the data we are going to need some reason for firms to hold prices constant. The most common way to achieve this result is called “Calvo Pricing” in honor of a paper by Guillermo Calvo. And how do we ensure that some prices in the economy remain sticky? We simply assign each firm some probability that they will be unable to change their price. In other words, we assume exactly the result we want to get.

Of course, economists have recognized that Calvo pricing isn’t really a satisfactory final answer, so they have worked to microfound Calvo’s idea through an optimization problem. The most common method, proposed by Rotemberg in 1982, is called the menu cost model. In this model of price setting, a firm must pay some cost every time it changes its prices. This cost ensures that a firm will only change its price when it is especially profitable to do so. Small price changes every day no longer make sense. The term menu cost comes from the example of a firm needing to print out new menus every time it changes one of its prices, but it can be applied more broadly to encompass every cost a firm might incur by changing a price. More specifically, price changes could have an adverse effect on consumers, causing some to leave the store. It could require more advanced computer systems, more complex interactions with suppliers, competitive games between firms.

But by wrapping all of these into one “menu cost,” am I really describing a firm’s problem. A “true” microfoundation would explicitly model each of these features at a firm level with different speeds of price adjustment and different reasons causing firms to hold prices steady. What do we gain by adding optimization to our models if that optimization has little to do with the problem a real firm would face? Are we any better off with “fake” microfoundations than we were with statistical aggregates. I can’t help but think that the “microfoundations” in modern macro models are simply fancy ways of finagling optimization problems until we get the result we want. Interesting mathematical exercise? Maybe. Improving our understanding of the economy? Unclear.

Other additions to the NK model that purport to move the model closer to reality are also suspect. As Olivier Blanchard describes in his 2008 essay, “The State of Macro:”

Reconciling the theory with the data has led to a lot of un- convincing reverse engineering. External habit formation—that is a specification of utility where utility depends not on consumption, but on consumption relative to lagged aggregate consumption—has been introduced to explain the slow adjustment of consumption. Convex costs of changing investment, rather than the more standard and more plausible convex costs of investment, have been introduced to explain the rich dynamics of investment. Backward indexation of prices, an assumption which, as far as I know, is simply factually wrong, has been introduced to explain the dynamics of inflation. And, because, once they are introduced, these assumptions can then be blamed on others, they have often become standard, passed on from model to model with little discussion

In other words, we want to move the model closer to the data, but we do so by offering features that bear little resemblance to actual human behavior. And if the models we write do not actually describe individual behavior at a micro level, can we really still call them “microfounded”?

And They Still Don’t Match the Data

In Part 10 of this series, I discussed the idea that we might not want our models to match the data. That view is not shared by most of the rest of the profession, however, so let’s judge these models on their own terms. Maybe the microfoundations are unrealistic and the shocks misspecified, but, as Friedman argued, who cares about assumptions as long as we get a decent result? New Keynesian models also fail in this regard.

Forecasting in general is very difficult for any economic model, but one would expect that after 40 years of toying with these models, getting closer and closer to an accurate explanation of macroeconomic phenomena, we would be able to make somewhat decent predictions. What good is explaining the past if it can’t help inform our understanding of the future? Here’s what the forecasts of GDP growth look like using a fully featured Smets-Wouters NK model

Source: Gurkaynak et al (2013)

Forecast horizons are quarterly and we want to focus on the DSGE prediction (light blue) against the data (red). One quarter ahead, the model actually does a decent job (probably because of the persistence of growth over time), but its predictive power is quickly lost as we expand the horizon. The table below shows how poor this fit actually is.

Source: Edge and Gurkaynak (2010)

The R^2 values, which represent the amount of variation in the data accounted for by the model are tiny (a value of 1 would be a perfect match to the data). Even more concerning, the authors of the paper compare a DSGE forecast to other forecasting methods and find it cannot improve on a reduced form VAR forecast and is barely an improvement over a random walk forecast that assumes that all fluctuations are completely unpredictable. Forty years of progress in the DSGE research program and the best we can do is add unrealistic frictions and make poor predictions. In the essay linked above, Blanchard concludes “the state of macro is good.” I can’t imagine what makes him believe that.

One of These Things is Not Like the Other Government vs Corporations

Facebook: “We are a nation of immigrants, and we all benefit when the best and brightest from around the world can live, work and contribute here. I hope we find the courage and compassion to bring people together and make this world a better place for everyone.”

Google: $4 million in donations to immigration causes

Airbnb:

Starbucks: Plans to hire 10,000 refugees

Lyft and Uber: After some controversy about eliminating surge pricing around JFK, Uber now plans to spend $3 million on affected drivers. Lyft will donate $1 million to the ACLU

Apple: “Apple is open. Open to everyone, no matter where they come from, which language they speak, who they love or how they worship. Our employees represent the finest talent in the world, and our team hails from every corner of the globe.”

Government:

Thank goodness we have a benevolent government to keep these evil corporations in check.

Why I’m a Libertarian

In a previous post I noted that libertarian ideas seem to be frequently misunderstood, that libertarians are sometimes labeled selfish, materialistic, and uncaring. In this post I hope to show that a libertarian worldview can come from a more virtuous principle: humility. Note that the title of this post is not “why you should be a libertarian.” I doubt it will convince anybody that is not already highly sympathetic to libertarian ideas, but I hope it can show that that (at least some) libertarians have good intentions. That I may be wrong, but I’m not evil.


A widely cited joke about Ayn Rand’s famous novel Atlas Shrugged goes something like this (I believe the original source was John Rogers here):

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

It’s a good joke, but I worry that many outside of libertarian circles take its message a bit too seriously. Libertarians live in a fantasy world where everyone shares our ideals and we never think about real issues, about real people. And it is perhaps unfortunate that Rand’s view, one which believes in an objectively correct morality, that aims to tell you that there is a right way to live and she knows it, has been associated so closely with libertarian thought more broadly.

I’m a libertarian because I don’t believe there’s a correct way to live.

Family is the most important part of my life. Others might place a higher weight on different relationships, with their friends, their students, their coworkers. Some may find their strongest bond comes from a higher being, so they let religion or spirituality take precedence over earthly concerns. Another priority could be helping those they don’t know, simply because they are less fortunate or in need of help. Devotion to their jobs, to their hobbies, to the pursuit of knowledge, to any other activity that they find fulfilling – each can also drive a person’s behavior. And of course, pure material pleasures occupy a place on everybody’s scale of value. All of these considerations play a part in deciding the actions that lead to a life worth living.

I’m a libertarian because I don’t want to tell you what’s most important.

A Harvard educated liberal from Massachusetts wants to convince you to support abortion because a woman has a right to her own body. An evangelical Christian from Texas says that killing a fetus is no different than killing a child. Neither can be proven right or wrong. Each wants to impose their values on the other. Drugs are immoral. Alcohol is immoral. Gay marriage is immoral. I disagree and I’ll try to convince anyone that believes otherwise to join my side. But I’ll respect your right to believe what you want as long as you recognize mine.

A person’s moral worth is determined by how much they produce for society. No, it’s determined by what percentage of their wealth they give to charity. Or maybe it’s how much they do for their family. How devout they are in their prayers. Everyone lives by a different code. How comfortable are you in saying that your code is the right one?

I’m a libertarian because you have as much right to your values as I have to mine.

In the 2012 Republican primary debates, the moderators asked Ron Paul if a libertarian society would let a person without insurance die (for the record, he said no). It seems like an easy question – of course we can’t let them die. Let’s ask a harder question. A cancer patient has six months to live. They can extend their life for an additional 5 years, but the procedure costs $5 million in addition to a significant amount of time from doctors who could be working on helping others. They don’t have insurance. Should they be allowed to die? What if they can only extend their life 6 months? 1 day? Where do we draw the line? And who draws it?

Global warming is real. It’s almost certainly caused by humans. It could very well cause catastrophic changes in the future. Our use of fossil fuels could be the source of substantial problems for future generations. But if we stopped using fossil fuels now, we definitely cause substantial problems for the current generation. How can we determine which is worse? How do we weigh the life of an individual against the lives of their descendants?

I’m a libertarian because everything is a tradeoff and I can’t value the costs and benefits.

We all want equality of opportunity. It’s a nice slogan. What does it mean? Some say it means education should be free for everyone – that it’s a basic human right. How much? What kind? Who pays? Some people excel in a standard classroom setup. They love to learn, they can sit down with a book and study. Others can’t. And that’s ok. To think that we can create equality of opportunity by placing everybody in the exact same environment may be pure in its intention, but it’s incredibly dangerous in its execution. We weren’t all created equal and that’s a great thing. Our differences are not something to be squashed out, but embraced.

I’m a libertarian because everybody has different strengths and weaknesses, because everybody has different needs.

Markets always fail. The conditions of perfect competition laid out in a standard economics textbook never hold in reality. Every firm has some monopoly power. Every good causes some externality. Collective action problems, public goods, asymmetric information – all pervasive issues that throw a wrench into the workings of a perfectly competitive economy. Couldn’t a government fix some of these problems? Doesn’t a planner have the ability to take a big picture approach and do what’s best for society instead of what’s best for each individual? It’s possible, but where does the knowledge come from? Where do we set the prices for the monopolist? How high is the optimal tax to prevent the externality? Can we design a mechanism to improve upon the free market outcome? Even in an economic model where everybody has identical preferences and production technologies are fixed the answers are not always clear. In the real world – good luck.

Someone made you king of the world. You want to make it better. So you call in teams of experts, the best from every field. You build supercomputers capable of running an unimaginable number of calculations every second. A coordinated, planned society led by the brightest minds available – how could the chaotic workings of the free market stand any chance? But soon you realize that even the simplest questions – like how much toilet paper to produce – turn out to be nearly impossible to answer. So you give up on your unified plan and try to just fix a few obvious problems. And yet each leak sealed opens up several more – the experts and their fancy computers do their best to predict people’s behavior, but there is simply too much left unknown. Without an overarching plan the ad hoc solutions continue to multiply and the end result is a convoluted, bureaucratic mess.

I’m a libertarian because knowledge is dispersed and I can’t think of a better way of collecting it than through the market process.

Liberty is not magic. It’s not a solution to any of the problems I’ve touched on above. But that’s exactly the point. When the questions facing society are this challenging it would be incredibly arrogant to assume that any one mind or group of minds could divine an appropriate solution. A society of liberty sidesteps these questions entirely. It allows individuals – with their unique perspectives and values, with their knowledge of their own specific time and place – to attempt to find solutions for their own much smaller problems. Most of these attempts fail, but a free market rewards those that work, letting the best rise to the top, creating a better world for all.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe individuals making decisions for themselves results in outcomes that are worse for everybody. Maybe governments are better at weighing the total costs and benefits to society than individuals acting on their own. Maybe a coordinated plan can figure out better answers to the questions facing our society than the spontaneous order of a free market. Maybe. And I’m happy to have those debates. But never say that I haven’t thought about these issues. Never say that I’m not worried about poverty, or the environment, or the thousands of other important problems that affect this world every day. Never question my intentions.

And never say that I’m a libertarian because I don’t care.

I’m a libertarian because I don’t know.

 

Study Finds That Nobody Changes Their Mind After Reading Fake News

You'll Never Believe What Trump Said About It

The title, in case you didn’t already guess, is fake news. There was no study. But think about your reaction when you read it. Raise your hand if you said “wait a minute, I always thought fake news was a huge deal but I guess this study proved me wrong. I’ll just change my mind without thinking about it at all.” Anyone? Yeah I didn’t think so. And if you aren’t convinced by a headline on a reputable publication such as this one (OK maybe not so much), are you really buying the fake headlines that the Pope backed Trump or that Hillary actually didn’t win the popular vote?

Recently there has been an uproar surrounding these fake headlines. Germany wants Facebook to pay $500,000 for every fake news story that shows up. California (of course) wants to pass a law that will make sure every high school teaches its students how to spot fake news stories. I wish those stories were themselves fake news, but they appear to be all too real.

Now there probably are some people who do read these fake headlines and don’t do their research. Maybe they’ll store it somewhere in the back of their mind and use it as evidence to support their positions in debates with their friends. But I suspect that the only people who believe a fake headline are ones who were already inclined to believe it before they read it. No study has been done, but I’ll make the claim anyway: Nobody changes their mind because of fake news.

(One qualification to the above point is that it may break down if real news were censored. Here I am thinking about a case where the government restricts the media so that propaganda becomes the only source of information. Obviously that would be a major problem)

Perhaps more concerning is that people also don’t seem to change their mind because of real news either. They don’t let the facts guide their positions, but instead seek out the facts that support the positions they already held. Is believing a fake news story any worse than only believing the stories that confirm your preconceived inclinations?

In other words, the problem is not fake news. The problem is confirmation bias. Everyone’s guilty of it. I certainly am. How could you not be? With the internet at your fingertips, evidence supporting nearly any argument is freely available. And I don’t just mean op-eds or random blog posts. Even finding academic research to support almost anything has become incredibly easy.

Let’s say you want to take a stand on whether the government should provide stimulus to get out of a recession. Is government spending an effective way to restore growth? You want to let the facts guide you so you turn to the empirical literature. Maybe you start by looking at the work of Robert Barro, a Harvard scholar who has dedicated a significant portion of his research to the size of the fiscal multiplier. Based on his findings, he has argued that using government spending to combat a recession is “voodoo economics.” But then you see that Christina Romer, an equally respected economist, is much more optimistic about the effects of government spending. And then you realize that you could pick just about any number for the spending multiplier and find some paper that supports it.

So you’re left with two options. You can either spend a lifetime digging into these dense academic papers, learning the methods they use, weighing the pros and cons of each of their empirical strategies, and coming to a well-reasoned conclusion about which seems the most likely to be accurate. Or you can fall back on ideology. If you’re conservative, you share Barro’s findings all over your Facebook feed. Your conservative friends see the headline and think “I knew it all along, those Obama deficits were no good,” while the liberals come along and say, “You believe Barro? His findings have been debunked. The stimulus saved the economy.” And your noble fact finding mission ends in people digging in their heels even further.

That’s just one small topic in one field. There’s simply no way to have a qualified, fact-driven opinion on every topic. To take a position, you need to have a frame to view the world through. You need to be biased. And this reality means that it takes very little to convince us of things that we already want to believe. Changing your mind, even in the face of what could be considered contradictory evidence, becomes incredibly hard.

I don’t have a solution, but I do have a suggestion. Stop pretending to be so smart. On every issue, no matter what you believe, you’re very likely to either be on the wrong side or have a bad argument for being on the right side. What do the facts say, you ask? It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that they can show pretty much anything you want. I’ve spent most of my time the last 5 or so years trying to learn economics. Above all else, I’ve learned two things in that time. The first is that I’m pretty confident I have no idea how the economy works. The second is something I am even more confident about: you don’t know how it works either.

Please Don’t Audit the Fed

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rand Paul, following in his father’s footsteps, has re-introduced a plan to audit the Fed. Trump supports the plan and even Bernie Sanders voted for it the last time the bill was put up before congress. I have no idea why. There might be an argument for ending the Fed entirely. Larry White gives a good summary of the argument in this video. I’ve written about the American Free Banking System, which worked reasonably well in the absence of a central bank (although the evidence is mixed). And maybe ending the Fed is the ultimate goal of Fed audit supporters and this bill is just a symbolic victory. But it really does essentially nothing useful and could potentially have detrimental effects.

In the press release linked above, Thomas Massie says “Behind closed doors, the Fed crafts monetary policy that will continue to devalue our currency, slow economic growth, and make life harder for the poor and middle class. It is time to force the Federal Reserve to operate by the same standards of transparency and accountability to the taxpayers that we should demand of all government agencies.” Even besides the fact that there is no serious economic analysis I know of that says the Fed makes life harder for the poor and middle class, this statement is complete nonsense.

Does the Fed need to be more transparent? I have a hard time seeing how it possibly could be. The Fed already posts on its website more information than anyone other than an academic economist could possibly want to know. Transcripts from their meetings, their economic forecasts, justifications for interest rate changes – it’s all there in broad daylight for anybody to read. As David Wessel points out in an excellent Q&A on auditing the Fed, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) already knows everything important about most of the assets held by the Fed.

The only possible change that could come as a result of auditing the Fed is more influence by congress over Federal Reserve decisions. That’s terrifying. Whatever your opinion of the Fed, it’s impossible to deny that it’s run by incredibly smart people who have dedicated their lives to understanding monetary policy. That doesn’t make them infallible. I’m all for taking power away from experts, for decentralizing and allowing markets to control money. But if we’re going to allow a group of individuals to decide the policy, at least let them be people who have some idea what they’re talking about. You might not love Janet Yellen, or Ben Bernanke, or Alan Greenspan, but I can’t imagine anyone would prefer monetary policy to be run by congress. Think about the arguments over raising the debt ceiling. Do we want that every time the Fed tries to make a decision? I certainly don’t.

I can absolutely criticize monetary policy. The Fed has come in below its 2% inflation target consistently for about 10 years now even though unemployment had been far from the natural rate. Maybe an NGDP target would be an improvement over the current dual mandate. And maybe we don’t need a central bank at all. I’m not opposed to monetary reform. But I can’t get behind a bill that only appears to make conducting monetary policy more political.