What’s Wrong With Modern Macro? Part 7 The Illusion of Microfoundations II: The Representative Agent

Part 7 in a series of posts on modern macroeconomics. Part 6 began a criticism of the form of “microfoundations” used in DSGE models. This post continues that critique by emphasizing the flaws in using a “representative agent.” This issue has been heavily scrutinized in the past and so this post primarily offers a synthesis of material found in articles from Alan Kirman and Kevin Hoover (1 and 2). 

One of the key selling points of DSGE models is that they are supposedly derived from microfoundations. Since only individuals can act, all aggregates must necessarily be the result of the interactions of these individuals. Understanding the mechanisms that lie behind the aggregates therefore seems essential to understanding the movements in the aggregates themselves. Lucas’s attack on Keynesian economics was motivated by similar logic. We can observe relationships between aggregate variables, but if we don’t understand the individual behavior that drives these relationships, how do we know if they will hold up when the environment changes?

I agree that ignoring individual behavior is an enormous problem for macroeconomics. But DSGE models do little to solve this problem.

Ideally, microfoundations would mean modeling behavior at an individual level. Each individual would then make choices based on the current economic conditions and these choices would aggregate to macroeconomic variables. Unfortunately, putting enough agents to make this exercise interesting is challenging to do in a mathematical model. As a result, “microfoundations” in a DSGE model usually means assuming that the decisions of all individuals can be summarized by the decisions of a single “representative agent.” Coordination between agents, differences in preferences or beliefs, and even the act of trading that is the hallmark of a market economy are eliminated from the discussion entirely. Although we have some vague notion that these activities are going on in the background, the workings of the model are assumed to be represented by the actions of this single agent.

So our microfoundations actually end up looking a lot closer to an analysis of aggregates than an analysis of true individual behavior. As Kevin Hoover writes, they represent “only a simulacrum of microeconomics, since no agent in the economy really faces the decision problem they represent. Seen that way, representative-agent models are macroeconomic, not microfoundational, models, although macroeconomic models that are formulated subject to an arbitrary set of criteria.” Hoover pushes back against the defense that representative agent models are merely a step towards truly microfounded models, arguing that not only would full microfoundations be infeasible but also that many economists do take the representative agent seriously on its own terms, using it both for quantitative predictions and policy advice.

But is the use of the representative agent really a problem? Even if it fails on its promise to deliver true “microfoundations,” isn’t it still an improvement over neglecting optimizing behavior entirely? Possibly, but using a representative agent offers only a superficial manifestation of individual decision-making, opening the door for misinterpretation. Using a representative agent assumes that the decisions of one agent at a macro level would be made in the same way as the decisions of millions of agents at a micro level. The theoretical basis for this assumption is weak at best.

In a survey of the representative agent approach, Alan Kirman describes many of the problems that arise when many agents are aggregated into a single representative. First, he presents the theoretical results from Sonnenschein (1972), Debreu (1974), and Mantel (1976), which show that even with strong assumptions on the behavior of individual preferences, the equilibrium that results by adding up individual behavior is not necessarily stable or unique.

The problem runs even deeper. Even if we assume aggregation results in a nice stable equilibrium, worrying results begin to arise as soon as we start to do anything with that equilibrium. One of the primary reasons for developing a model in the first place is to see how it reacts to policy changes or other shocks. Using a representative agent to conduct such an analysis implicitly assumes that the new aggregate equilibrium will still correspond to decisions of individuals. Nothing guarantees that it will. Kirman gives a simple example of a two-person economy where the representative agent’s choice makes each individual worse off. The Lucas Critique then applies here just as strongly as it does for old Keynesian models. Despite the veneer of optimization and rational choice, a representative agent model still abstracts from individual behavior in potentially harmful ways.

Of course, macroeconomists have not entirely ignored these criticisms and models with heterogeneous agents have become increasing popular in recent work. However, keeping track of more than one agents makes it nearly impossible to achieve useful mathematical results. The general process for using heterogeneous agents in a DSGE model then is to first prove that these agents can be aggregated and summarized by a set of aggregate equations. Although beginning from heterogeneity and deriving aggregation explicitly helps to ensure that the problems outlined above do not arise, it still imposes severe restrictions on the types of heterogeneity allowed. It would be an extraordinary coincidence if the restrictions that enable mathematical tractability also happen to be the ones relevant for understanding reality.

We are left with two choices. Drop microfoundations or drop DSGE. The current DSGE framework only offers an illusion of microfoundations. It introduces optimizing behavior at an aggregate level, but has difficulty capturing many of the actions essential to the workings of the market economy at a micro level. It is not a first step to discovering a way to model true microfoundations because it is not a tool well-suited to analyzing the behavior of more than one person at a time. Future posts will explore some models that are.