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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Paul Krugman and the Ptolmeic Astronomers of the Chicago School

Paul Krugman writes here about his reaction to becoming the lightening rod for pushback from the primitive orthodoxy that has passed for macroeconomics since the 1980s. In the past thirty years academics has been purged of anything resembling coherence or common sense as the practitioners of economics wander off into hypothetical fields of rational expectations and applying mathematics to human behavior.

Eugene Fama, one of the pillars of the Chicago School was recently asked what he thought about the work of Hyman Minsky. Fama replied, "I'm not familiar with his work." Minsky is the guy who is talking about the real world, Mr. Fama.

Ptolmeic astronomers went to the point of demanding the excommunication or execution of their rivals, all to avoid admitting they had devoted their lives to a fallacy. The same phenomenon is being played out today.

Freshwater rage
Paul Krugman
September 14, 2009

I’m still on the road, with only sporadic internet access. So I’ve missed out on much of the outpouring of rage over my magazine article. I gather, though, that the usual suspects are utterly outraged at my suggestion that freshwater macro has spent several decades heading down the wrong path. They’re smart! They work hard, using hard math! How dare I say such a thing?

And all of this, of course, without a hint of irony.

For when freshwater macro took over a good part of the field, its leaders gleefully dismissed all the work Keynesian economists had done over the previous few decades, often with sneers and sniggers.

And that same adolescent quality was evident in the reactions to the Obama administration’s attempts to deal with the crisis — as Brad DeLong points out, people like Robert Lucas and John Cochrane (not to mention Richard Posner, who isn’t a macroeconomist but gets his take from his colleagues) didn’t say that when serious scholars like Christina Romer based policy recommendations on Keynesian economics, they were wrong; the freshwater crowd declared that anyone with Keynesian views was, by definition, either a fool or intellectually dishonest.

So the freshwater outrage over finding their own point of view criticized is, you might think, a classic case of people who can dish it out but can’t take it.

But it’s actually even worse than that.

When freshwater macro came in, there was an active purge of competing views: students were not exposed, at all, to any alternatives. People like Prescott boasted that Keynes was never mentioned in their graduate programs. And what has become clear in the recent debate — for example, in the assertion that Ricardian equivalence rules out any effect from government spending changes, which is just wrong — is that the freshwater side not only turned Keynes into an unperson, but systematically ignored the work being done in the New Keynesian vein. Nobody who had read, say, Obstfeld and Rogoff would have been as clueless about the logic of temporary fiscal expansion as these guys have been. Freshwater macro became totally insular.

And hence the most surprising thing in the debate over fiscal stimulus: the raw ignorance that has characterized so many of the freshwater comments. Above all, we’ve seen the phenomenon of well-known economists “rediscovering” Say’s Law and the Treasury view (the view that government cannot affect the overall level of demand), not because they’ve transcended the Keynesian refutation of these views, but because they were unaware that there had ever been such a debate.

It’s a sad story. And the even sadder thing is that it’s very unlikely that anything will change: freshwater macro will get even more insular, and its devotees will wonder why nobody in the real world of policy and action pays any attention to what they say.

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