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The core problem with ‘New Keynesian’ macroeconomics

Summary:
Whereas the Great Depression of the 1930s produced Keynesian economics, and the stagflation of the 1970s produced Milton Friedman’s monetarism, the Great Recession has produced no similar intellectual shift. This is deeply depressing to young students of economics, who hoped for a suitably challenging response from the profession. Why has there been none? Krugman’s answer is typically ingenious: the old macroeconomics was, as the saying goes, “good enough for government work”  … Krugman is a New Keynesian, and his essay was intended to show that the Great Recession vindicated standard New Keynesian models. But there are serious problems with Krugman’s narrative … The New Keynesian models did not offer a sufficient basis for maintaining Keynesian policies once the economic

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Whereas the Great Depression of the 1930s produced Keynesian economics, and the stagflation of the 1970s produced Milton Friedman’s monetarism, the Great Recession has produced no similar intellectual shift.

This is deeply depressing to young students of economics, who hoped for a suitably challenging response from the profession. Why has there been none?

The core problem with ‘New Keynesian’ macroeconomicsKrugman’s answer is typically ingenious: the old macroeconomics was, as the saying goes, “good enough for government work”  … Krugman is a New Keynesian, and his essay was intended to show that the Great Recession vindicated standard New Keynesian models. But there are serious problems with Krugman’s narrative …

The New Keynesian models did not offer a sufficient basis for maintaining Keynesian policies once the economic emergency had been overcome, they were quickly abandoned …

The problem for New Keynesian macroeconomists is that they fail to acknowledge radical uncertainty in their models, leaving them without any theory of what to do in good times in order to avoid the bad times. Their focus on nominal wage and price rigidities implies that if these factors were absent, equilibrium would readily be achieved …

Without acknowledgement of uncertainty, saltwater economics is bound to collapse into its freshwater counterpart. New Keynesian “tweaking” will create limited political space for intervention, but not nearly enough to do a proper job.

Robert Skidelsky

Skidelsky’s article shows why we all ought to be sceptic of the pretences and aspirations of ‘New Keynesian’ macroeconomics. So far it has been impossible to see that it has yielded very much in terms of realist and relevant economic knowledge. And — as if that wasn’t enough — there’s nothing new or Keynesian about it!

The core problem with ‘New Keynesian’ macroeconomics‘New Keynesianism’ doesn’t have its roots in Keynes. It has its intellectual roots in Paul Samuelson’s ill-founded ‘neoclassical synthesis’ project, whereby he thought he could save the ‘classical’ view of the market economy as a (long run) self-regulating market clearing equilibrium mechanism, by adding some (short run) frictions and rigidities in the form of sticky wages and prices.

But — putting a sticky-price lipstick on the ‘classical’ pig sure won’t do. The ‘New Keynesian’ pig is still neither Keynesian nor new.

The rather one-sided emphasis of usefulness and its concomitant instrumentalist justification cannot hide that ‘New Keynesians’ cannot give supportive evidence for their considering it fruitful to analyze macroeconomic structures and events as the aggregated result of optimizing representative actors. After having analyzed some of its ontological and epistemological foundations, yours truly cannot but conclude that ‘New Keynesian’ macroeconomics, on the whole, has not delivered anything else than ‘as if’ unreal and irrelevant models.

The purported strength of New Classical and ‘New Keynesian’ macroeconomics is that they have firm anchorage in preference-based microeconomics, and especially the decisions taken by inter-temporal utility maximizing ‘forward-looking’ individuals.

To some of us, however, this has come at too high a price. The almost quasi-religious insistence that macroeconomics has to have microfoundations – without ever presenting neither ontological nor epistemological justifications for this claim — has put a blind eye to the weakness of the whole enterprise of trying to depict a complex economy based on an all-embracing representative actor equipped with superhuman knowledge, forecasting abilities and forward-looking rational expectations. It is as if these economists want to resurrect the omniscient Walrasian auctioneer in the form of all-knowing representative actors equipped with rational expectations and assumed to somehow know the true structure of our model of the world.

And then, of course, there is that weird view on unemployment that makes you wonder on which planet those ‘New Keynesians’ live …

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Lars Pålsson Syll
Professor at Malmö University. Primary research interest - the philosophy, history and methodology of economics.

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