Friday, November 19, 2010

Foley, Sidrauski, and the Microfoundations Project

In a previous post I mentioned an autobiographical essay by Duncan Foley in which he describes in vivid detail his attempts to "alter and generalize competitive equilibrium microeconomic theory" so as to make its predictions more consonant with macroeconomic reality.  Much of this work was done in collaboration with Miguel Sidrauski while the two were members of the MIT faculty some forty years ago. Both men were troubled by the "classical scientific dilemma" facing economics at the time: the discipline had "two theories, the microeconomic general equilibrium theory, and the macroeconomic Keynesian theory, each of which seemed to have considerable explanatory power in its own domain, but which were incompatible." This led them to embark on a "search for a synthesis" that would bridge the gap.

This is how Duncan describes the basic theoretical problem they faced, the strategies they adopted in trying to solve it, the importance of the distinction between stock and flow equilibrium, and the desirability of a theory that allows for intertemporal plans to be mutually inconsistent in the aggregate (links added):
My intellectual preoccupation at M.I.T. was what has come to be called the "microeconomic foundations of macroeconomics." The general equilibrium theory forged by Walras and elaborated by Wald (1951), McKenzie (1959), and Arrow and Debreu (1954) can be used, with the assumption that markets exist for all commodities at all future moments and in all contingencies, to represent macroeconomic reality by simple aggregation. The resulting picture of macroeconomic reality, however, has several disturbing features. For one thing, competitive general equilibrium is efficient, so that it is incompatible with the unemployment of any resources productive enough to pay their costs of utilization. This is difficult to reconcile with the common observation of widely fluctuating rates of unemployment of labor and of capacity utilization of plant and equipment. General equilibrium theory reduces economic production and exchange to the pursuit of directly consumable goods and services, and as a result has no real role for money... The general equilibrium theory can accommodate fluctuations in output and consumption, but only as responses to external shocks to resource availability, technology or tastes. It is difficult to reconcile these relatively slowly moving factors with the large business-cycle fluctuations characteristic of developed capitalist economies. In assuming the clearing of markets for all contingencies in all periods, general equilibrium theory assures the consistency... of individual consumption, investment, and production plans, which is difficult to reconcile with the recurring phenomena of financial crisis and asset revaluation that play so large a role in actual capitalist economic life...

Keynes' theory, on the other hand, offers a systematic way around these problems. Keynes views money as central to the actual operation of developed capitalist economies, precisely because markets for all periods and contingencies do not exist to reconcile differences in agents' opinions about the future. Because agents cannot sell all their prospects on contingent claims markets, they are liquidity constrained. In a liquidity constrained economy there is no guarantee that all factor markets will clear without unemployed labor or unutilized productive capacity. Market prices are inevitably established in part by speculation on an uncertain future. As a result the economy is vulnerable to endogenous fluctuations as the result of herd psychology and self-fulfilling prophecy. From this point of view it is not hard to see why business cycle fluctuations are a characteristic of a productively and financially developed capitalist economy, nor why the potential for financial crisis is inherent in decentralized market allocation of investment...

But there are many loose ends in Keynes' argument. In presenting the equilibrium of short-term expectations that determines the level of output, income and employment in the short period, for example, Keynes argues that entrepreneurs hire labor and buy raw materials to undertake production because they form an expectation as to the volume of sales they will achieve when the production process runs its course... But Keynes offers no systematic alternative account of how entrepreneurs form a view of their prospects on the market to take the place of the assumption of perfect competition and market clearing. This turns out, in detail, to be a very difficult problem to solve.

Given the supply of nominal money, a fall in prices appears to be a possible endogenous source of increased liquidity. Keynes argues that the money price level is largely determined by the money wage level, but offers no systematic explanation of the dynamics governing the movements of money wages.

Though money is the fulcrum on which his theory turns, Keynes does not actually set out a theory of the economic origin or determinants of money. As a result it is difficult to relate the fluctuations in macroeconomic variables such as the velocity of money to the underlying process of the circulation of commodities.

On point after point Keynes' plausible macroeconomic concepts raise unanswered questions about the microeconomic behavior that might support them.

Thus economics in the late 1960s suffered from a classical scientific dilemma in that it had two theories, the microeconomic general equilibrium theory, and the macroeconomic Keynesian theory, each of which seemed to have considerable explanatory power in its own domain, but which were incompatible. The search for a synthesis which would bridge this gap seemed to me to be a good problem to work on. From the beginning the goal of my work in this area was to alter and generalize competitive equilibrium microeconomic theory so as to deduce Keynesian macroeconomic behavior from it.

In the succeeding years I approached this project from two angles. One was to fiddle with general equilibrium theory in the hope of introducing money into it in a convincing and unified way. The other was to rewrite as much as possible of Keynesian macroeconomics in a form compatible with competitive general equilibrium.
This latter project came to fruition first as a close collaboration with Miguel Sidrauski, and resulted in a book Monetary and Fiscal Policy in a Growing Economy (Foley and Sidrauski, 1971)... Our joint work... sought to develop a canonical model with which it would be possible to analyze the classical problems of the impact of government policy on the path of output of an economy... Following my notion that the price of capital goods are determined in asset markets, and the flow of new investment adjusts to make the marginal cost of investment equal to that price, we assumed a two-sector production system, so that there would be a rising marginal cost of investment. The asset equilibrium of the model is a generalization of Sidrauski's (and Tobin's) portfolio demand theory, which in turn is a generalization of Keynes' theory of liquidity preference. One of my chief goals was to sort out rigorously and explicitly the relation between stock and flow variables, so that we analyzed the model as a system of differential equations in continuous time, a setting in which the difference between stock and flow concepts is highlighted. At each instant asset market clearing of money, bonds, and capital markets in stocks together with labor and consumption good flow market clearing determine the price of capital, the interest rate, the price level, income, consumption and investment. Government policies determining the evolution of supplies of money and bonds together with the addition of investment flows to the capital stock move the model through time in a transparent trajectory. The book considers the comparative statics and dynamics of this model in detail...

Monetary and Fiscal Policy in a Growing Economy had a mixed reception... The fact that we did not derive the asset and consumption demands of households from explicit intertemporal expected utility maximization turned out to be an unfashionable choice for the 1970s, when the economics profession was persuaded to put an immense premium on models of "full rationality." Sidrauski and I were quite aware of the possibility of such a model, which would have been a generalization of his thesis work. At a conference at the University of Chicago in 1968, David Nissen presented a perfect foresight macroeconomic model that made clear that this path would lead directly back to the Walrasian general equilibrium results. Since I didn't believe in the relevance of that path to the understanding of real macroeconomic phenomena, I thought the main point in exploring this line of reasoning was to show how unrealistic its results were...

The project of a macroeconomic theory distinct from Walrasian general equilibrium theory rests heavily on the distinction between stock and flow equilibrium. In Keynes' vision, asset holders are forced to value existing and prospective assets speculatively without a full knowledge of the future. Our model represented this moment through the clearance of asset markets. In the Walrasian vision this distinction is dissolved through the imaginary device of clearing futures and contingency markets which establish flow prices that imply asset prices. The moral of Sidrauski's and my work is that some break with the full Walrasian system along temporary equilibrium lines is necessary as a foundation for a distinct macroeconomics. Once the implications of the stock-flow distinction in macroeconomics became clear, however, the temptation to finesse them by retreating to the Walrasian paradigm under the slogan of "rational expectations" became overwhelming to the American economics profession....

In my view, the rational expectations assumption which Lucas and Sargent put forward to "close" the Keynesian model, was only a disguised form of the assumption of the existence of complete futures and contingencies markets. When one unpacked the "expectations" language of the rational expectations literature, it turned out that these models assumed that agents formed expectations of futures and contingency prices that were consistent with the aggregate plans being made, and hence were in fact competitive general equilibrium prices in a model of complete futures and contingency markets. Arrow and Debreu had made the assumption of the existence of complete futures and contingency markets to give their version of the Walrasian model the appearance of coping with the real-world problems posed by the uncertainty of the future. To my mind, the rational expectations approach amounted to making the perfect-foresight assumptions that I had already considered and rejected on grounds of unrealism in the course of working with Sidrauski... What the profession took to be an exciting breakthrough in economic theory I saw as a boring and predictable retracing of an already discredited path.
To my mind the most appealing feature of the Foley-Sidrauski approach to microfoundations is that it allows for the possibility that individuals make mutually inconsistent plans based on heterogeneous beliefs about the future. This is what the rational expectations hypothesis rules out. Auxillary assumptions such as sticky prices must then be imposed in order to make the models more consonant with empirical observation.

In contrast, the notion of temporary equilibrium (introduced by John Hicks) allows for the clearing of asset markets despite mutually inconsistent intertemporal plans. As time elapses and these inconsistencies are revealed, dynamic adjustments are made that affect prices and production. There is no presumption that such a process must converge to anything resembling a rational expectations equilibrium, although there are circumstances under which it might. The contemporary literature closest to this vision of the economy is based on the dynamics of learning, and this dates back at least to Marcet and Sargent (1989) and Howitt (1992), with more recent contributions by Evans and Honkapohja (2001) and Eusepi and Preston (2008). I am not by any means an insider to this literature but my instincts tell me that it is a promising direction in which to proceed.

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Update (11/20). Nick Rowe (in a comment) directs us to an earlier post of his in which the importance of allowing for mutually inconsistent intertemporal plans is discussed. He too argues for an explicit analysis of the dynamic adjustment process that resolves these inconsistencies as they appear through time. It's a good post, and makes the point with clarity.

Some of the comments on Nick's post reflect the view that explicit consideration of disequilibrium dynamics is unnecessary since they are known to converge to rational expectations in some models. My own view is that a lot more work needs to be done on learning before this sanguine claim can be said to have theoretical support. Furthermore, local stability of a rational expectations equilibrium in a linearized system does not tell us very much about the global properties of the original (nonlinear) system, since it leaves open the possibility of corridor stability: instability in the face of large but not small perturbations. (Tobin made a similar point in a paper that I have discussed previously here.)

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Update (12/13). Mark Thoma and Leigh Caldwell have both posted interesting reactions to this. There's clearly a lot more to be said on the topic but for the moment I'll just link without further comment.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Herbert Scarf's 1964 Lectures: An Eyewitness Account

In the fourth volume of The Makers of Modern Economics is a fascinating autobiographical essay by Duncan Foley that traces the arc of his career as an economist and reflects upon developments in the discipline over the past four decades. Duncan describes his first exposure to economics at Swarthmore, his interactions with Tobin as a graduate student at Yale, the introduction in his doctoral dissertation of a concept of equity (now called envy-freeness) that does not depend on interpersonal comparisons of utility, his enormously fruitful collaboration with Miguel Sidrauski at MIT on the microfoundations of macroeconomics, his disillusionment with the rational expectations revolution, and his growing interest in heterodox economics at Stanford and subsequently at Barnard and Columbia.
There's enough material there for several interesting posts, but here I'll confine myself to reproducing Duncan's vivid recollection of a two semester course in mathematical economics taught by Herbert Scarf in 1964 (links added):
After the free pursuit of individual learning fostered by the Swarthmore Honors program, I found the return to traditional classroom teaching at Yale a difficult transition... I was frustrated in these courses not just by the tedium and ineffciency of the class lecture style, but by the tendency for instructors who knew a great deal about the substance and practice of their subjects to waste time rehearsing mathematical and theoretical topics they did not understand very well and often misconstrued...

The great exception to this pattern of misdirected pedagogy was Herbert Scarf's year-long course in Mathematical Economics. Scarf knew this material as well as anyone in the world, and had the gifts of patience, clarity of exposition, and personal charisma to convey it brilliantly and effectively. Scarf's teaching was a revelation to me of what could be accomplished in the classroom, with the appropriate attention to systematic organization, consistently careful preparation, and a judicious balance of lecture and discussion to maintain contact with the level of students' understanding. My notes from this course comprise a better and more complete reference for the topics than any book that has since been published.

The passage of time has revealed that the content of Scarf's course was just as remarkable in its depth and insight as the presentation. Remaining mostly within the realm of finite-dimensional spaces, and emphasizing duality and practical algorithms for the construction of solutions, Scarf gave a thorough tutorial on the mathematics of optimization, starting with linear programming via the simplex method and continuing through Kuhn-Tucker theory, dynamic programming, turnpike theory through Roy Radner's algorithmic approach, and integer programming. Since a huge proportion of economic models boil down to an optimization problem, this survey effectively unified and clarified an immense range of economics for the student. When Peter Diamond was working with James Mirrlees on the problem of optimal taxation (Diamond and Mirrlees, 1971a,b), for example, Scarf's approach helped me to grasp the relation between the complexity of their comparative statics results and the nonconvex structure of the constraint set (the intersection of the set of allocations that are resource and technology-feasible and those that can be supported by distorting taxes) in this problem. The study of these formal problems also convinced me that most economic theory depends on strong assumptions of convexity to assure the tractability of the resulting optimization problem, and that in situations where convexity is inherently absent or implausible it is very difficult to make much progress by traditional methods.

Scarf's course continued with a systematic review of general equilibrium theory, starting from the separating hyperplane approach to the Second Welfare Theorem, and including Gérard Debreu's proof (1959) of existence of a competitive equilibrium, the first presentation of Scarf's algorithmic approach to the calculation of competitive equilibria (1973), the theory of the core and its asymptotic equivalence to competitive equilibrium, and Scarf's own crucial counterexamples to the stability of competitive equilibrium under tâtonnement dynamics with more than two commodities (1960). The critical lesson Scarf emphasized in this discussion was the fact that the competitive equilibrium cannot, except in special cases such as representative agent economies, be represented as the solution of a mathematical programming problem. In other words, the Walrasian system does not generally admit a potential function. As a corollary to this observation we see that the comparative statics of competitive general equilibrium theory inherently lacks the organizing structure of convex programming, so that, for example, equilibrium prices are not in general monotonic functions of endowments. These observations planted the seeds in my mind of what grew to be grave doubts about the Walrasian system. These doubts do not focus on the logical consistency of the system, but on its adequacy as a useful representation of real economic relations...

In retrospect we can see that Scarf's course mapped out the whole development of high economic theory for the next twenty or twenty-five years. The theoretical literature of this period has largely been concerned with generalizing the concepts he taught to more sophisticated commodity spaces (such as infinite-dimensional spaces and spaces of stochastic processes), and rediscovering the general properties and limitations of competitive equilibrium theory in these contexts. This has been a source of both wonder and concern to me. I am amazed at how prescient a mind like Scarf's can be about the future development of a field, guided purely by superb mathematical instincts. But what does this imply about the theoretical fertility of economics during this period? If the core theoretical ideas that have dominated the field since were all present in the Yale classroom in 1964, it suggests that economic theory has been in a scholastic, formalistic phase of development during this period, primarily focusing on working out increasingly esoteric implications of well-established concepts.
Duncan tells me that he still has his notes from this course and that Scarf, who recently retired from teaching, remains full of vigor.

In subsequent posts I hope to discuss Duncan's reflections on the microfoundations of macroeconomics, his work with Sidrauski, his concern that the rational expectations revolution was a step backwards in the development of the theory, and his view that "some break with the full Walrasian system along temporary equilibrium lines is necessary as a foundation for a distinct macroeconomics." (The Hicksian concept of temporary equilibrium allows for asset market clearing in the face of heterogeneous beliefs and mutually inconsistent intertemporal plans.) These are themes that I have touched upon in previous posts and would like to revisit soon. In the meantime, let me repeat my plea to the fellows of the Economteric Society to nominate Duncan for election to their ranks.

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Update (11/18). Glenn Loury writes in to say:
I never had much interaction with Scarf, but his pedagogic virtuosity and mastery of mathematical economics circa 1970 reminds me of... Stanley Reiter, whom I encountered as a raw assistant professor at Northwestern in the 1970s. Stan, a close friend and occasional collaborator with Leo Hurwicz, was director of the Math Center at Northwestern (forerunner of MEDS), and in the late 1970s had a huge impact on young scholars like Paul Milgrom, Bengt Holmstrom, Mark Satterthwaite and Roger Myerson...
I don't think I agree with the claim that much of "high economic theory" since the 60s has been dotting "i's" and crossing "t's". That was true through the mid-seventies, perhaps, but the asymmetric information, mechanism design, incomplete contract theory revolutions (Hurwicz/Myerson/Maskin, eg.) -- and the emergence of deeply insightful applied theory in a variety of fields from labor and I/O to money, finance and trade suggest otherwise to me.
I basically agree with Glenn on this latter point but, in Duncan's defense, the focus of his essay was on the microfoundations of macroeconomics and the futility of simply aggregating the Walrasian system. And on this dimension I think that progress has been limited at best.

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Update (11/18). A wonderful comment by Jonathan Conning:
I too sat in Herb Scarf's Yale Micro Theory classroom and still remember the stunned awe that I and my classmates felt at the end of his first lecture with us, which happened to be on the simplex algorithm.
My only regret is that that semester at Yale (1990) we only got a handful of micro lectures from Scarf and so did not get the full "systematic review of general equilibrium theory" that Foley mentions.
I have little to say to improve on Duncan's glowing description of a Scarf lecture except to note that by 1990 the Hillhouse basement classroom had smooth sliding blackboards (which I do not imagine they had in 1964). This meant that there were always three blackboards in use, as he could fill one blackboard full of equations and slide it to conceal or reveal what had been written before. One of the things I recall most vividly is how artfully and efficiently Scarf used those boards, and how rarely he used the eraser. A lecture which might have started with definitions and theory that might have taken a detour through an expertly chosen example to reinforce intuition would in the end always return, with the smoothest glide of a hand to reveal again exactly the right portion of the board to bring the lecture full circle back to the climactic point he wanted. Everything seemed expertly choreographed and timed down to the very last second.
I hope that other former students of Scarf will somehow stumble upon this post.