From Lars Syll Economic theory, like anthropology, ‘works’ by studying societies which are in some relevant sense simpler or more primitive than our own, in the hope either that relations that are important but hidden in our society will be laid bare in simpler ones, or that concrete evidence can be discovered for possibilities which are open to us which are without precedent in our own history. Unlike anthropologists, however, economists simply invent the primitive societies we study, a practice which frees us from limiting ourselves to societies which can be physically visited as sparing us the discomforts of long stays among savages. This method of society-invention is the source of the utopian character of economics; and of the mix of distrust and envy with which we are viewed by
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from Lars Syll
Economic theory, like anthropology, ‘works’ by studying societies which are in some relevant sense simpler or more primitive than our own, in the hope either that relations that are important but hidden in our society will be laid bare in simpler ones, or that concrete evidence can be discovered for possibilities which are open to us which are without precedent in our own history. Unlike anthropologists, however, economists simply invent the primitive societies we study, a practice which frees us from limiting ourselves to societies which can be physically visited as sparing us the discomforts of long stays among savages. This method of society-invention is the source of the utopian character of economics; and of the mix of distrust and envy with which we are viewed by our fellow social scientists. The point of studying wholly fictional, rather than actual societies, is that it is relatively inexpensive to subject them to external forces of various types and observe the way they react. If, subjected to forces similar to those acting on actual societies, the artificial society reacts in a similar way, we gain confidence that there are useable connections between the invented society and the one we really care about.
Although plenty of more or less hagiographic obituaries have acknowledged Lucas ‘brilliance’ and ‘influence’, I find it more appropriate to just honestly address the reasons his whole project to reform macroeconomics was such a blatant failure.
Neither yours truly, nor anthropologists, will recognise anything in Lucas’ description of economic theory even remotely reminiscent of practices actually used in real sciences, this quote still gives a very good picture of Lucas’ methodology.
All empirical sciences use simplifying or unrealistic assumptions in their modelling activities. That is not the issue – as long as the assumptions made are not unrealistic in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons.
The implications that follow from the kind of models that people like Robert Lucas — according to Ed Prescott, ‘the master of methodology’ — are always conditional on the simplifying assumptions used — assumptions predominantly of a rather far-reaching and non-empirical character with little resemblance to features of the real world. From a descriptive point of view, there is a fortiori usually very little resemblance between the models used and the empirical world. ‘As if’ explanations building on such foundations are not really any explanations at all, since they always conditionally build on hypothesized law-like theorems and situation-specific restrictive assumptions. The empirical-descriptive inaccuracy of the models makes it more or less miraculous if they should — in any substantive way — be able to be considered explanative at all. If the assumptions that are made are known to be descriptively totally unrealistic (think of e.g. ‘rational expectations’) they are of course likewise totally worthless for making empirical inductions. Assuming — as Lucas — that people behave ‘as if’ they were rational FORTRAN programmed computers doesn’t take us far when we know that the ‘if’ is false.
The obvious shortcoming of a basically epistemic — rather than ontological — approach such as ‘successive approximations’ and ‘as if’ modelling assumptions, is that ‘similarity’, ‘analogy’ or ‘resemblance’ tout court do not guarantee that the correspondence between model and target is interesting, relevant, revealing or somehow adequate in terms of mechanisms, causal powers, capacities or tendencies. No matter how many convoluted refinements of concepts are made in the model, if the successive ‘as if’ approximations do not result in models similar to reality in the appropriate respects (such as structure, isomorphism, etc), they are nothing more than ‘substitute systems’ that do not bridge to the world but rather misses its target.
Economics building on the kind of modelling strategy that Lucas represents does not produce science.
It’s nothing but pseudo-scientific cheating.
The thrust of this realist rhetoric is the same both at the scientific and at the meta-scientific levels. It is that explanatory virtues need not be evidential virtues. It is that you should feel cheated by “The world is as if T were true”, in the same way as you should feel cheated by “The stars move as if they were fixed on a rotating sphere”. Realists do feel cheated in both cases.
Contrary to what some überimpressed macroeconomists seem to argue, I would say the recent economic crisis and the fact that Chicago economics has had next to nothing to contribute to understanding it, shows that Lucas and his New Classical economics — in Lakatosian terms — is a degenerative research program in dire need of replacement.
Mainstream economic theory has long been in the story-telling business whereby economic theorists create make-believe analogue models of the target system – usually conceived as the real economic system. This modelling activity is considered useful and essential. Since fully-fledged experiments on a societal scale as a rule are prohibitively expensive, ethically indefensible or unmanageable, economic theorists have to substitute experimenting with something else. To understand and explain relations between different entities in the real economy the predominant strategy is to build models and make things happen in these “analogue-economy models” rather than engineering things happening in real economies.
In business cycles theory these models are constructed with the purpose of showing that changes in the supply of money “have the capacity to induce depressions or booms” [Lucas 1988:3] not just in these models, but also in real economies. To do so economists are supposed to imagine subjecting their models to some kind of “operational experiment” and “a variety of reactions”. “In general, I believe that one who claims to understand the principles of flight can reasonably be expected to be able to make a flying machine and that understanding business cycles means the ability to make them too, in roughly the same sense” [Lucas 1981:8]. To Lucas models are the laboratories of economic theories, and after having made a simulacrum-depression Lucas hopes we find it “convincing on its own terms – that what I said would happen in the [model] as a result of my manipulation would, in fact, happen” [Lucas 1988:4]. The clarity with which the effects are seen is considered “the key advantage of operating in simplified, fictional worlds” [Lucas 1988:5].
On the flip side lies the fact that “we are not really interested in understanding and preventing depressions in hypothetical [models]. We are interested in our own, vastly more complicated society” [Lucas 1988:5]. But how do we bridge the gulf between the model and the ‘target system’? According to Lucas, we have to be willing to “argue by analogy from what we know about one situation to what we would like to know about another, quite different situation” [Lucas 1988:5]. Progress lies in the pursuit of the ambition to “tell better and better stories” [Lucas 1988:5], simply because that is what economists do.
We are storytellers, operating much of the time in worlds of make believe. We do not find that the realm of imagination and ideas is an alternative to, or retreat from, practical reality. On the contrary, it is the only way we have found to think seriously about reality. In a way, there is nothing more to this method than maintaining the conviction … that imagination and ideas matter … there is no practical alternative” [Lucas 1988:6].
Lucas has applied this mode of theorizing by constructing “make-believe economic systems” to the age-old question of what causes and constitutes business cycles. According to Lucas the standard for what that means is that one “exhibits understanding of business cycles by constructing a model in the most literal sense: a fully articulated artificial economy, which behaves through time so as to imitate closely the time series behavior of actual economies” [Lucas 1981:219].
To Lucas business cycles is an inherently systemic phenomenon basically characterized by conditional co-variations of different time series. The vision is “the possibility of a unified explanation of business cycles, grounded in the general laws governing market economies, rather than in political or institutional characteristics specific to particular countries or periods” [Lucas 1981:218]. To be able to sustain this view and adopt his “equilibrium approach” he has to define the object of study in a very constrained way. Lucas asserts, e.g., that if one wants to get numerical answers “one needs an explicit, equilibrium account of the business cycles” [Lucas 1981:222]. But his arguments for why it necessarily has to be an equilibrium is not very convincing. The main restriction is that Lucas only deals with purportedly invariable regularities “common to all decentralized market economies” [Lucas 1981:218]. Adopting this definition he can treat business cycles as all alike “with respect to the qualitative behavior of the co-movements among series” [1981:218].
Postulating invariance paves the way for treating various economic entities as stationary stochastic processes (a standard assumption in most modern probabilistic econometric approaches) and the possible application of “economic equilibrium theory.” The result is that Lucas’ business cycle is a rather watered-down version of what is usually connoted when speaking of business cycles.
Based on the postulates of “self-interest” and “market clearing” Lucas has repeatedly stated that a pure equilibrium method is a necessary intelligibility condition and that disequilibria are somehow “arbitrary” and “unintelligible” [Lucas 1981:225]. Although this might (arguably) be requirements put on models, these requirements are irrelevant and totally without justification vis-à-vis the real-world target system. Why should involuntary unemployment, for example, be considered an unintelligible disequilibrium concept? Given the lack of success of these models when empirically applied, what is unintelligible, is rather to pursue in this reinterpretation of the ups and downs in business cycles and labour markets as equilibria. To Keynes, involuntary unemployment is not equatable to actors in the labour market becoming irrational non-optimizers. It is basically a reduction in the range of working options open to workers, regardless of any volitional optimality choices made on their part. Involuntary unemployment is an excess supply of labour. That unemployed in Lucas’ business cycles models only can be conceived of as having chosen leisure over work is not a substantive argument about real-world unemployment. Sometimes workers are not employed. That is a real phenomenon and not a “theoretical construct … the task of modern theoretical economics to ‘explain’” [Lucas 1981:243].
All economic theories have to somehow deal with the daunting question of uncertainty and risk. It is “absolutely crucial for understanding business cycles” [Lucas 1981:223]. To be able to practice economics at all, “we need some way … of understanding which decision problem agents are solving” [Lucas 1981:223]. Lucas – in search of a “technical model-building principle” [Lucas 1981:1] – adapts the rational expectations view, according to which agents’ subjective probabilities are identified “with observed frequencies of the events to be forecast” are coincident with “true” probabilities. This hypothesis [Lucas 1981:224]
will most likely be useful in situations in which the probabilities of interest concern a fairly well defined recurrent event, situations of ‘risk’ [where] behavior may be explainable in terms of economic theory … In cases of uncertainty, economic reasoning will be of no value … Insofar as business cycles can be viewed as repeated instances of essentially similar events, it will be reasonable to treat agents as reacting to cyclical changes as ‘risk’, or to assume their expectations are rational, that they have fairly stable arrangements for collecting and processing information, and that they utilize this information in forecasting the future in a stable way, free of systemic and easily correctable biases.
To yours truly, this seems much like putting the cart before the horse. Instead of adapting the model to the object – which from both ontological and epistemological considerations seems the natural thing to do – Lucas proceeds in the opposite way and chooses to define his object and construct a model solely to suit his own methodological and theoretical preferences. All those – interesting and important – features of business cycles that have anything to do with model-theoretical openness, and a fortiori not possible to squeeze into the closure of the model, are excluded. One might rightly ask what is left of that we in common sense meaning refer to as business cycles. Einstein’s dictum – “everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler” falls to mind. Lucas – and neoclassical economics at large – does not heed the implied apt warning.
The development of macro-econometrics has according to Lucas supplied economists with “detailed, quantitatively accurate replicas of the actual economy” thereby enabling us to treat policy recommendations “as though they had been experimentally tested” [Lucas 1981:220]. But if the goal of theory is to be able to make accurate forecasts this “ability of a model to imitate actual behavior” does not give much leverage. What is required is “invariance of the structure of the model under policy variations”. Parametric invariance in an economic model cannot be taken for granted, “but it seems reasonable to hope that neither tastes nor technology vary systematically” [Lucas 1981:220].
The model should enable us to posit contrafactual questions about what would happen if some variable was to change in a specific way. Hence the assumption of structural invariance, that purportedly enables the theoretical economist to do just that. But does it? Lucas appeals to “reasonable hope”, a rather weak justification for a modeller to apply such a far-reaching assumption. To warrant it one would expect an argumentation that this assumption – whether we conceive of it as part of a strategy of “isolation”, “idealization” or “successive approximation” – really establishes a useful relation that we can export or bridge to the target system, the “actual economy.” That argumentation is neither in Lucas nor – to my knowledge – in the succeeding neoclassical refinements of his “necessarily artificial, abstract, patently ‘unreal’” analogue economies [Lucas 1981:271]. At most, we get what Lucas himself calls “inappropriately maligned” casual empiricism in the form of “the method of keeping one’s eyes open.” That is far from sufficient to warrant any credibility in a model pretending to explain the complex and difficult recurrent phenomena we call business cycles. Providing an empirical “illustration” or a “story” to back up your model does not suffice. There are simply too many competing illustrations and stories that could be exhibited or told.
As Lucas has to admit – complaining about the less than ideal contact between theoretical economics and econometrics – even though the “stories” are (purportedly) getting better and better, “the necessary interaction between theory and fact tends not to take place” [Lucas 1981:11].
The basic assumption of this “precise and rigorous” model therefore cannot be considered anything else than an unsubstantiated conjecture as long as it is not supported by evidence from outside the theory or model. To my knowledge no in any way decisive empirical evidence has been presented. This is the more tantalizing since Lucas himself stresses that the presumption “seems a sound one to me, but it must be defended on empirical, not logical grounds” [Lucas 1981:12].
And applying a “Lucas critique” on Lucas’s own model, it is obvious that it too fails. Changing “policy rules” cannot just be presumed not to influence investment and consumption behaviour and a fortiori technology, thereby contradicting the invariance assumption. Technology and tastes cannot live up to the status of an economy’s deep and structurally stable Holy Grail. They too are part and parcel of an ever-changing and open economy. Lucas’ hope of being able to model the economy as “a FORTRAN program” and “gain some confidence that the component parts of the program are in some sense reliable prior to running it” [Lucas 1981:288] therefore seems – from an ontological point of view – totally misdirected. The failure in the attempt to anchor the analysis in the alleged stable deep parameters ‘tastes’ and ‘technology’ shows that if you neglect ontological considerations pertaining to the target system, ultimately reality kicks back when at last questions of bridging and exportation of model exercises are laid on the table. No matter how precise and rigorous the analysis is, and no matter how hard one tries to cast the argument in “modern mathematical form” [Lucas 1981:7] they do not push science forward one single millimetre if they do not stand the acid test of relevance to the target. No matter how clear, precise, rigorous or certain the inferences delivered inside these models are, they do not per se say anything about external validity.
Lucas, Robert (1981), Studies in Business-Cycle Theory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
– (1986), Adaptive Behavior and Economic Theory. In Hogarth, Robin & Reder, Melvin (eds) Rational Choice (pp. 217-242). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
– (1988), What Economists Do.
Syll, Lars (2016), On the use and misuse of theories and models in economics.