It’s hard to believe now, but not long ago economists were congratulating themselves over the success of their field. Those successes — or so they believed — were both theoretical and practical, leading to a golden era for the profession. On the theoretical side, they thought that they had resolved their internal disputes. Thus, in a 2008 paper titled “The State of Macro” (that is, macroeconomics, the study of big-picture issues like recessions), Olivier Blanchard of M.I.T., now the chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, declared that “the state of macro is good.” The battles of yesteryear, he said, were over, and there had been a “broad convergence of vision.” And in the real world, economists believed they had things under control: the “central problem of depression-prevention has been solved,” declared Robert Lucas of the University of Chicago in his 2003 presidential address to the American Economic Association. In 2004, Ben Bernanke, a former Princeton professor who is now the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, celebrated the Great Moderation in economic performance over the previous two decades, which he attributed in part to improved economic policy making.
Last year, everything came apart...
...II. FROM SMITH TO KEYNES AND BACK
The birth of economics as a discipline is usually credited to Adam Smith, who published “The Wealth of Nations” in 1776. Over the next 160 years an extensive body of economic theory was developed, whose central message was: Trust the market. Yes, economists admitted that there were cases in which markets might fail, of which the most important was the case of “externalities” — costs that people impose on others without paying the price, like traffic congestion or pollution. But the basic presumption of “neoclassical” economics (named after the late-19th-century theorists who elaborated on the concepts of their “classical” predecessors) was that we should have faith in the market system...
... Now what? This is the second time America has been up against the zero lower bound, the previous occasion being the Great Depression. And it was precisely the observation that there’s a lower bound to interest rates that led Keynes to advocate higher government spending: when monetary policy is ineffective and the private sector can’t be persuaded to spend more, the public sector must take its place in supporting the economy. Fiscal stimulus is the Keynesian answer to the kind of depression-type economic situation we’re currently in.
Such Keynesian thinking underlies the Obama administration’s economic policies — and the freshwater economists are furious. For 25 or so years they tolerated the Fed’s efforts to manage the economy, but a full-blown Keynesian resurgence was something entirely different. Back in 1980, Lucas, of the University of Chicago, wrote that Keynesian economics was so ludicrous that “at research seminars, people don’t take Keynesian theorizing seriously anymore; the audience starts to whisper and giggle to one another.” Admitting that Keynes was largely right, after all, would be too humiliating a comedown.
And so Chicago’s Cochrane, outraged at the idea that government spending could mitigate the latest recession, declared: “It’s not part of what anybody has taught graduate students since the 1960s. They [Keynesian ideas] are fairy tales that have been proved false. It is very comforting in times of stress to go back to the fairy tales we heard as children, but it doesn’t make them less false.” (It’s a mark of how deep the division between saltwater and freshwater runs that Cochrane doesn’t believe that “anybody” teaches ideas that are, in fact, taught in places like Princeton, M.I.T. and Harvard.)
This faith was, however, shattered by the Great Depression. Actually, even in the face of total collapse some economists insisted that whatever happens in a market economy must be right: “Depressions are not simply evils,” declared Joseph Schumpeter in 1934 — 1934! They are, he added, “forms of something which has to be done.” But many, and eventually most, economists turned to the insights of John Maynard Keynes for both an explanation of what had happened and a solution to future depressions.
Keynes did not, despite what you may have heard, want the government to run the economy. He described his analysis in his 1936 masterwork, “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money,” as “moderately conservative in its implications.” He wanted to fix capitalism, not replace it. But he did challenge the notion that free-market economies can function without a minder, expressing particular contempt for financial markets, which he viewed as being dominated by short-term speculation with little regard for fundamentals. And he called for active government intervention — printing more money and, if necessary, spending heavily on public works — to fight unemployment during slumps.
It’s important to understand that Keynes did much more than make bold assertions. “The General Theory” is a work of profound, deep analysis — analysis that persuaded the best young economists of the day. Yet the story of economics over the past half century is, to a large degree, the story of a retreat from Keynesianism and a return to neoclassicism. The neoclassical revival was initially led by Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago, who asserted as early as 1953 that neoclassical economics works well enough as a description of the way the economy actually functions to be “both extremely fruitful and deserving of much confidence.” But what about depressions?
Friedman’s counterattack against Keynes began with the doctrine known as monetarism. Monetarists didn’t disagree in principle with the idea that a market economy needs deliberate stabilization. “We are all Keynesians now,” Friedman once said, although he later claimed he was quoted out of context. Monetarists asserted, however, that a very limited, circumscribed form of government intervention — namely, instructing central banks to keep the nation’s money supply, the sum of cash in circulation and bank deposits, growing on a steady path — is all that’s required to prevent depressions. Famously, Friedman and his collaborator, Anna Schwartz, argued that if the Federal Reserve had done its job properly, the Great Depression would not have happened. Later, Friedman made a compelling case against any deliberate effort by government to push unemployment below its “natural” level (currently thought to be about 4.8 percent in the United States): excessively expansionary policies, he predicted, would lead to a combination of inflation and high unemployment — a prediction that was borne out by the stagflation of the 1970s, which greatly advanced the credibility of the anti-Keynesian movement.
Eventually, however, the anti-Keynesian counterrevolution went far beyond Friedman’s position, which came to seem relatively moderate compared with what his successors were saying. Among financial economists, Keynes’s disparaging vision of financial markets as a “casino” was replaced by “efficient market” theory, which asserted that financial markets always get asset prices right given the available information. Meanwhile, many macroeconomists completely rejected Keynes’s framework for understanding economic slumps. Some returned to the view of Schumpeter and other apologists for the Great Depression, viewing recessions as a good thing, part of the economy’s adjustment to change. And even those not willing to go that far argued that any attempt to fight an economic slump would do more harm than good.
Not all macroeconomists were willing to go down this road: many became self-described New Keynesians, who continued to believe in an active role for the government. Yet even they mostly accepted the notion that investors and consumers are rational and that markets generally get it right.
Of course, there were exceptions to these trends: a few economists challenged the assumption of rational behavior, questioned the belief that financial markets can be trusted and pointed to the long history of financial crises that had devastating economic consequences. But they were swimming against the tide, unable to make much headway against a pervasive and, in retrospect, foolish complacency.
III. PANGLOSSIAN FINANCE
In the 1930s, financial markets, for obvious reasons, didn’t get much respect. Keynes compared them to “those newspaper competitions in which the competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces from a hundred photographs, the prize being awarded to the competitor whose choice most nearly corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors as a whole; so that each competitor has to pick, not those faces which he himself finds prettiest, but those that he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitors.”
And Keynes considered it a very bad idea to let such markets, in which speculators spent their time chasing one another’s tails, dictate important business decisions: “When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done.”
By 1970 or so, however, the study of financial markets seemed to have been taken over by Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, who insisted that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Discussion of investor irrationality, of bubbles, of destructive speculation had virtually disappeared from academic discourse. The field was dominated by the “efficient-market hypothesis,” promulgated by Eugene Fama of the University of Chicago, which claims that financial markets price assets precisely at their intrinsic worth given all publicly available information. (The price of a company’s stock, for example, always accurately reflects the company’s value given the information available on the company’s earnings, its business prospects and so on.) And by the 1980s, finance economists, notably Michael Jensen of the Harvard Business School, were arguing that because financial markets always get prices right, the best thing corporate chieftains can do, not just for themselves but for the sake of the economy, is to maximize their stock prices. In other words, finance economists believed that we should put the capital development of the nation in the hands of what Keynes had called a “casino.”
It’s hard to argue that this transformation in the profession was driven by events. True, the memory of 1929 was gradually receding, but there continued to be bull markets, with widespread tales of speculative excess, followed by bear markets. In 1973-4, for example, stocks lost 48 percent of their value. And the 1987 stock crash, in which the Dow plunged nearly 23 percent in a day for no clear reason, should have raised at least a few doubts about market rationality.
These events, however, which Keynes would have considered evidence of the unreliability of markets, did little to blunt the force of a beautiful idea. The theoretical model that finance economists developed by assuming that every investor rationally balances risk against reward — the so-called Capital Asset Pricing Model, or CAPM (pronounced cap-em) — is wonderfully elegant. And if you accept its premises it’s also extremely useful. CAPM not only tells you how to choose your portfolio — even more important from the financial industry’s point of view, it tells you how to put a price on financial derivatives, claims on claims. The elegance and apparent usefulness of the new theory led to a string of Nobel prizes for its creators, and many of the theory’s adepts also received more mundane rewards: Armed with their new models and formidable math skills — the more arcane uses of CAPM require physicist-level computations — mild-mannered business-school professors could and did become Wall Street rocket scientists, earning Wall Street paychecks.
To be fair, finance theorists didn’t accept the efficient-market hypothesis merely because it was elegant, convenient and lucrative. They also produced a great deal of statistical evidence, which at first seemed strongly supportive. But this evidence was of an oddly limited form. Finance economists rarely asked the seemingly obvious (though not easily answered) question of whether asset prices made sense given real-world fundamentals like earnings. Instead, they asked only whether asset prices made sense given other asset prices. Larry Summers, now the top economic adviser in the Obama administration, once mocked finance professors with a parable about “ketchup economists” who “have shown that two-quart bottles of ketchup invariably sell for exactly twice as much as one-quart bottles of ketchup,” and conclude from this that the ketchup market is perfectly efficient.
But neither this mockery nor more polite critiques from economists like Robert Shiller of Yale had much effect. Finance theorists continued to believe that their models were essentially right, and so did many people making real-world decisions. Not least among these was Alan Greenspan, who was then the Fed chairman and a long-time supporter of financial deregulation whose rejection of calls to rein in subprime lending or address the ever-inflating housing bubble rested in large part on the belief that modern financial economics had everything under control. There was a telling moment in 2005, at a conference held to honor Greenspan’s tenure at the Fed. One brave attendee, Raghuram Rajan (of the University of Chicago, surprisingly), presented a paper warning that the financial system was taking on potentially dangerous levels of risk. He was mocked by almost all present — including, by the way, Larry Summers, who dismissed his warnings as “misguided.”
By October of last year, however, Greenspan was admitting that he was in a state of “shocked disbelief,” because “the whole intellectual edifice” had “collapsed.” Since this collapse of the intellectual edifice was also a collapse of real-world markets, the result was a severe recession — the worst, by many measures, since the Great Depression. What should policy makers do? Unfortunately, macroeconomics, which should have been providing clear guidance about how to address the slumping economy, was in its own state of disarray...
... When it comes to the all-too-human problem of recessions and depressions, economists need to abandon the neat but wrong solution of assuming that everyone is rational and markets work perfectly. The vision that emerges as the profession rethinks its foundations may not be all that clear; it certainly won’t be neat; but we can hope that it will have the virtue of being at least partly right.