Brief History of Macroeconomics and The Origins of Freshwater vs. Saltwater Economics

I and others, particularly Paul Krugman, occasionally make reference to “freshwater” vs. “saltwater” economics.  Here’s a little background to explain the terms and, I hope, shed a little light on current disputes in macroeconomic theory.

First, let’s go back in time.  The stuff that economists study, namely the economy, economic behavior, and markets, really emerged as it’s own discipline in the 1700’s with Adam Smith.  It had always been a topic for philosophers to discuss. Even Aristotle writes about the topics.  But it didn’t really emerge from “moral philosophy” into it’s own field of study until Smith.  Originally Smith and the subsequent economists such as Ricardo focused on markets and what we now  call microeconomics with a nod towards questions of political economy (public policy and the whole economic system).  The industrial revolution was in full swing.  The economic system wasn’t really “capitalist” because nobody knew what that was yet.  It wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that the word capitalism becomes commonly used.   Note:  Adam Smith was not a capitalist.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded usage of “capitalist” comes in 1792 in France, well after Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations.  

Then in the years just after the Napoleonic wars, England suffered some very severe financial crises and depressions involving the collapse of canal-building businesses.  At the time, Smith’s famous treatise was now 40-55 years old.  The authors now called economists argued about it’s causes and the policies needed to right the economy and restore full-employment.  The center of the debate revolved around questions of “whether there could ever be such a thing as a general glut of commodities”.  In other words, was it possible that the now industrialized economy with it’s newly enlarged banking sector and wide circulation of paper money could be too efficient?  Would such an economy always produce willing buyers for all the goods that sellers wanted to supply?

Two views emerged. One of them, later called “Classical” becomes the dominant thinking in economic circles.  The Classical view denies that long-term high unemployment is even possible as long as the government balances it’s budget and follows a laissez-faire policy of not interfering in markets.  A very mechanistic view of the economy as being constructed of self-adjusting markets that always return to equilibrium evolves.  The Classical view supports a very liberal (old sense) and anti-regulation view of government policy.

Critics existed but they failed to dominate the debate.  Karl Marx in the mid-1800’s writes some scathing critiques of Classical economics focusing on how the mechanism of market equilibrium cannot and does not work as described in labor markets.  Yet despite the critique, the Classical economists continue to dominate policy making and academic circles.  The debate, however, becomes more polarized with the Classicals of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s pushing even more extreme anti-government, pro-market policy positions and models than their Classical predecessors advocated. Many of the critics of capitalism and Classical economics move to the opposite end of the spectrum and embrace socialist, communist, or fascist/syndical economics, in effect taking a position that market capitalism is so fatally flawed that it must be completely replaced by a system of planning by the government.

Despite the dominance of the Classicals, there were always some economists laboring, researching, and writing about the cycles of business and the workings of money and banks.  They just didn’t get much attention or have a comprehensive framework to distinquish themselves from either the Classicals or the planned economy types.

Then came Keynes and the Great Depression.  Classical economics denied The Great Depression could happen – much like University of Chicago economists in 2010 who claimed that today’s high unemployment is the result of workers suddenly choosing to voluntarily have leisure instead of a job.  Keynes writes a powerful book called The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.  Macroeconomics is born.

Keynesian macro focuses on a total systems approach to the economy instead of just assuming that whatever works in a micro perspective in each market will make the total system work.  Keynes attempts to avoid the fallacy of composition. Keynes’s analysis shows that an industrialized, capitalist market economy with a financial/banking sector is inherently unstable.  It tends to have cycles – business cycles.  It’s beyond the intent of this post to explain the reasons, but the bottom-line was that Keynes identified a role for active government and central bank policy to maintain full employment  and stable prices.  Keynes rapidly gained converts in economics and soon the field was split into microeconomics and macroeconomics.

The success of Keynesian economists and Keynesian policies in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s led to dominance of Keynesian viewpoints.  But there were two subversive trends underway that would eventually reverse the Keynesian dominance and return the Classical viewpoint to dominance.  One was an attempt to build a comprehensive mathematics framework for all economics built on the math of Newton’s physics.  This effort, called the neo-classical synthesis, originally focused on microeconomics.  But eventually it turned it’s attention to putting Keynes’s ideas into the same optimizing-behavior mathematics.  Unfortunately, Keynes himself was long dead by now and unable to clarify what he “meant”.  Some ideas are forced onto him that weren’t necessarily there in the original (such as insisting on static equilibrium).  The second trend was a small group of economists who never agreed.  They were in effect Classicals in exile.  Led by Milton Friedman at University of Chicago and Friedrich Hayek, they launched a two-prong attack.  Hayek’s attack led to what we call Austrian economics today and is often embraced by extreme libertarians.  I won’t get into that here, there’s not enough time.

Friedman’s initial attack focused on re-writing our understand of The Great Depression.  Friedman works to show that monetary policy by the central bank was at fault for the Depression, implying that a laissez-faire government fiscal policy would be best.  Friedman’s disciples at Chicago and elsewhere expanded the attack by insisting on “micro-foundations” in all macro-economic theories and models.  By micro-foundations, they mean that the only acceptable basis for a macroeconomic model is one that is based only on the micro ideas of perfectly rational individuals acting on perfect information with perfectly rational expectations about the future and the nature of the economy.  By the mid-1970’s the Friedman posse was clearly winning the academic wars, in part because their position lent itself easily to using neo-classical synthesis  mathematics and because it was consistent with “micro-foundations”.

Friedman originally took a modified Classical position.  Classicals denied that either fiscal or monetary policy could affect or correct the performance of the whole economy.  Friedman pushed the idea that fiscal policy wouldn’t work but that monetary policy would.  Eventually the next generation of Friedman students and disciples went further and returned to the Classical position that neither fiscal nor monetary policy would work.

As it turns out, these newly re-ascendant Classicals, now being called New Classicals, inspired by Friedman, often taught at universities located inland near some kind of “freshwater”.  The remaining supporters of Keynesian viewpoints, now under severe attack, taught at schools nearer the ocean.  Then in 1976 R.E. Hall pens a paper called Notes on the Current State of Empirical Macroeconomics and identifies this split and associates freshwater and saltwater with the split.

As I see it, the major distinguishing feature of macroeconomics is its concern with fluctuations in real output and unemployment. The two burning questions of macroeconomics are: Why does the economy undergo recessions and booms? What effect does conscious government policy have in offsetting these fluctuations? These questions define the issues considered here. I will further restrict my attention to structural approaches, and will avoid discussion of the reduced-form approach, including its recent sophisticated manifestation (7).

As a gross oversimplification, current thought can be divided into two schools. The fresh water view holds that fluctuations are largely attributable to supply shifts and that the government is essentially incapable of affecting the level of economic activity. The salt water view holds shifts in demand responsible for fluctuations and thinks government policies (at least monetary policy) is capable of affecting demand. Needless to say, individual contributors vary across a spectrum of salinity). The old division between monetarists and Keynesians is no longer relevant, as an important element of fresh-water doctrine is the proposition that monetary policy has no real effect. What used to be the standard monetarist view is now middle-of-the-road, and is widely represented, for example, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1To take a few examples, Sargent corresponds to distilled water, Lucas to Lake Michigan, Feldstein to the Charles River above the dam, Modigliani to the Charles below the dam, and Okun to the Salton Sea.


Obama’s So-Called Keynesian Stimulus Efforts Aren’t Very

The simple version of Keynesian economics suggests that if the economy is suffering from too little economic activity and high unemployment there are some policy options.  Specifically Keynes suggests there are three general kinds of policy options:

  1. The central bank (The Fed in the case of the U.S.) could lower interest rates and create money by buying bonds on the open market.  This is called stimulative monetary policy. It is supposed to work by making private sector borrowing more attractive and more profitable so that businesses in particular increase their spending on business investment goods like equipment and factories.
  2. The government could increase it’s budget deficit by borrowing more money and cutting taxes.  This is fiscal policy by tax cuts. It works by putting more cash in the hands of households and firms (increases their after-tax income) who then increase their spending.
  3. The government could increase it’s budget deficit by borrowing more money and directly spending the money itself, either by direct transfer payments to needy individuals, or by buying things like new dams or construction projects, or by hiring the unemployed itself. This is fiscal policy by spending.

There’s nothing to stop a country from pursuing all the above options simultaneously if it chose.  But not all of these options are equal in either effectiveness.

NOTE: This is old-style John Maynard Keynes style Keynesianism, not the  “New Keynesian” theories that have dominated some academic circles in the last couple decades. It’s also based on the real thing, not the caricature that it’s opponents paint which is usually without foundation. 

NOTE 2: It’s really not a good idea to try to simplify Keynes.  When you do, you’re likely to over-simplify and really miss powerful insights and nuances.  Nonetheless, I will plunge ahead with full knowledge of the risk.

The real richness of Keynesian theory though lies not just in these prescriptions, but the analysis of when to use which one, whether it is likely to work, and under what conditions.  The first option, monetary policy, is to be preferred in cases of  mild recessions when interest rates are “normal” and the slowdown is largely for mild, temporary factors such as an outside economic shock. Monetary policy is quick and easy to implement. It’s also relatively easy to reverse course when the time comes.

Keynes had two key insights about monetary policy though that are highly relevant to our present situation.  Monetary policy can be become impotent if interest rates drop to near zero and we get into a liquidity trap.  This is when people and firms become fearful of the future and come to expect continued weakness or even GDP declines and deflation.  In a liquidity trap, people just sit on money rather than spend or invest it.  Monetary policy is relatively ineffective in such cases. We have been in a liquidity trap since late 2008 and that’s why the record 3 years of a virtually zero Fed Funds interest rate and The Fed’s QE1 and QE2 programs haven’t worked. Liquidity traps aren’t common, but they do exist and they aren’t extinct.  We were in one in the 1930’s Great Depression and Japan has struggled with one for the last 15+ years.

Keynes also had insights about the two fiscal policy approaches, tax cuts vs. increased spending.   In particular, tax cuts will only be effective to the degree that households and firms actually spend the money.  If they use the money to pay down debts or to save, then it really won’t improve conditions.  Later research in the 1950’s and 1960’s strengthened these insights. Later research showed that it also makes a big difference who gets the tax cuts and whether they think the tax cut is permanent.  Temporary tax cuts are much less effective than permanent ones because people tend to save them more.  Also, high-income individuals tend to save more of the tax cut (proportionally) than more desperate lower-income folks. Finally, later research showed that when a recession comes about because private debt got too high, then tax cuts are least effective.  Notice a pattern here?

The fiscal policy “stimulus” efforts that we have pursued since the Great Recession began have been very, very heavily tax-cut oriented.  Bush’s original stimulus effort in early 2007 in an effort to “nip the recession in the bud” was all tax cuts.  The Feb. 2009 stimulus bill of Obama (the ARRA) was between 40% and 50% tax cuts.  The meager effort passed in Dec 2010 was all tax cuts. And now, the proposal is again very tax cut heavy.  Not only have the fiscal stimulus efforts been heavily tax cut-based, but the cuts have temporary cuts targeted at either high-income folks or only offering a meager amount to low-income folks.  Further, we still have a huge private sector debt overhand that people want to pay down before they spend more. In sum, the dominant response which many have labeled as “Keynesian” really hasn’t been what John Maynard Keynes suggested. Many have asserted that “Keynesian policies don’t work” and cite our weak economy despite several fiscal policy stimulus attempts as proof.  But that’s not really a valid test.  It’s like claiming some physician is a total quack because you took pills like he recommended but you didn’t take the exact same pills as he recommended. You took something else. Now you’re still sick.  It’s not the physician’s prescription that failed, it’s your refusal to follow the prescription and the diagnosis that failed.

Critics will counter with a “yes, but there was still some spending stimulus in the Obama bills and our failure to fully recover is proof the fiscal spending as stimulus prescription is quackery.”  But have we really had an increase in government spending anywhere near large enough to fill the gap?   Let’s look at some trends (courtesy of Brad Delong):

We simply have not expanded government purchases as a share of potential GDP in this downturn:

FRED Graph  St Louis Fed 4


The graph shows the relative changes in share of GDP of four key portions of GDP: exports, business equipment investment, government purchases, and residential construction. (everything in the graph is scaled relative to 2005 -that’s why the lines all meet at o in 2005).  The whole Keynesian idea is that if exports, business equipment investment, or residential construction go down then government purchases should go up and vice versa.  That hasn’t happened at all.  Instead, government purchases has consistently declined since 1995!.  In other words, actual changes in government purchases have not only not been a stimulus, but they have been contractionary.  Government spending policy has been contractionary for over 15 years!  We didn’t notice it because strong increases in business equipment investment and housing were doing the stimulating prior to 2006. In the period 1995-2000, it was probably appropriate in a Keynesian sense to have declining government purchases and a contractionary policy – it was countercyclical to the dot-com boom and the housing boom.

But after 2007, residential construction collapsed. For awhile in 2009 both business equipment investment and exports declined sharply.  The only appropriate Keynesian response would have been a very, very large government purchases program.  But we didn’t do that.  Instead, the so-called 2009 stimulus bill was barely enough new spending at the federal level to offset the declines and cuts at the state and local levels. Overall, government spending did not increase. It went neutral for a couple years. But in late 2010, we resumed the march to contractionary policies.  The ARRA wound down.  State and local governments accelerated their budget cuts. And Washington became pre-occupied with imaginary threats of impossible debt crises at some point 10 years from now.

To continue the earlier physician and disease metaphor, we did try a little of the prescription but we took too little.  It’s as if we went to the doctor, the physician diagnosed a very severe infection and prescribed heavy doses of anti-biotics.  We went home took a lot of aspirin instead and only a couple of the anti-biotic tablets.  Now folks want to blame the doctor and his “failed prescriptions” when we didn’t take them.  None of this is what Keynes or 1960’s style Keynesians would have recommended. To conclude that Obama has tried Keynesian policies and they have failed is dead wrong.  The policies have largely failed to stimulate and re-ignite growth, but they weren’t Keynesian.

Why the Austerity Talk?

Brad DeLong is as puzzled as I, but is more eloquent in expressing it.  In so doing he does my classes a favor in expressing a quick version of the history of addressing macro economic crises.

For nearly 200 years economists from John Stuart Mill through Walter Bagehot and John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman to Ben Bernanke have known that a depression caused by a financial panic is not properly treated by starving the economy of government purchases and of money. So why does “austerity” have such extraordinary purchase on the minds of North Atlantic politicians right now?

Let me speak as a card-carrying neoliberal, as a bipartisan technocrat, as a mainstream neoclassical macroeconomist–a student of Larry Summers and Peter Temin and Charlie Kindleberger and Barry Eichengreen and Olivier Blanchard and many others.

We put to one side issues of long-run economic growth and of income and wealth distribution, and narrow our focus to the business cycle–to these grand mal seizures of high unemployment that industrial market economies have been suffering from since at least 1825. Such episodes are bad for everybody–bad for workers who lose their jobs, bad for entrepreneurs and equity holders who lose their profits, bad for governments that lose their tax revenue, and bad for bondholders who see debts owed them go unpaid as a result of bankruptcy. Such episodes are best avoided.

From my perspective, the technocratic economists by 1829 had figured out why these semi-periodic grand mal seizures happened. In 1829 Jean-Baptiste Say published his Course Complet d’Economie Politique… in which he implicitly admitted that Thomas Robert Malthus had been at least partly right in his assertions that an economy could suffer from at least a temporary and disequliibrium “general glut” of commodities. In 1829 John Stuart Mill wrote that one of what was to appear as his Essays on Unsettled Questions in Political Economy in which he put his finger on the mechanism of depression.

Semi-periodically in market economies, wealth holders collectively come to the conclusion that their holdings of some kind or kinds of financial assets are too low. These financial assets can be cash money as a means of liquidity, or savings vehicles to carry purchasing power into the future (of which bonds and cash money are important components), or safe assets (of which, again, cash money and bonds of credit-worthy governments are key components)–whatever. Wealth holders collectively come to the conclusion that their holdings of some category of financial assets are too small. They thus cut back on their spending on currently-produced goods and services in an attempt to build up their asset holdings. This cutback creates deficient demand not just for one or a few categories of currently-produced goods and services but for pretty much all of them. Businesses seeing slack demand fire workers. And depression results.

What was not settled back in 1829 was what to do about this. Over the years since, mainstream technocratic economists have arrived at three sets of solutions:

  1. Don’t go there in the first place. Avoid whatever it is–whether an external drain under the gold standard or a collapse of long-term wealth as in the end of the dot-com bubble or a panicked flight to safety as in 2007-2008–that creates the shortage of and excess demand for financial assets.
  2. If you fail to avoid the problem, then have the government step in and spend on currently-produced goods and servicesin order to keep employment at its normal levels whenever the private sector cuts back on its spending.
  3. If you fail to avoid the problem, then have the government create and provide the financial assets that the private sector wants to hold in order to get the private sector to resume its spending on currently-produced goods and services.

There are a great many subtleties in how a government should attempt to do (1), (2), and (3). There is much to be said about when each is appropriate. There is a lot we need to learn about how attempts to carry out one of the three may interfere with or make impossible attempts to carry out the other branches of policy. But those are not our topics today.

Our topic today is that, somehow, all three are now off the table. There is right now in the North Atlantic no likelihood of reforms of Wall Street and Canary Wharf to accomplish (1) and diminish the likelihood and severity of a financial panic. There is right now in the North Atlantic no likelihood at all of (2): no political pressure to expand or even extend the anemic government-spending stimulus measures that have ben undertaken. And there is right now in the North Atlantic little likelihood of (3): the European Central Bank is actively looking for ways to shrink the supply of the financial assets it provides to the private sector, and the Federal Reserve is under pressure to do the same–both because of a claimed fear that further expansionary asset provision policies run the risk of igniting unwarranted inflation.

But there is no likelihood of unwarranted inflation that can be seen either in the tracks of price indexes or in the tracks of financial market readings of forecast expectations.

Nevertheless, you listen to the speeches of North Atlantic policymakers and you read the reports, and you hear things like:

“Obama said that just as people and companies have had to be cautious about spending, ‘government should have to tighten its belt as well…’”

Now there were—and perhaps there still are—people in the White House who took these lines out of speeches as fast as they could But the speechwriters keep putting them in, and President Obama keeps saying them, in all likelihood because he believes them.

And here we reach the limits of my mental horizons as a neoliberal, as a technocrat, as a mainstream neoclassical economist. Right now the global market economy is suffering a grand mal seizure of high unemployment and slack demand. We know the cures–fiscal stimulus via more government spending, monetary stimulus via provision by central banks of the financial assets the private sector wants to hold, institutional reform to try once gain to curb the bankers’ tendency to indulge in speculative excess under control. Yet we are not doing any of them. Instead, we are calling for “austerity.”

John Maynard Keynes put it better than I can in talking about a similar current of thought back in the 1930s:

It seems an extraordinary imbecility that this wonderful outburst of productive energy [over 1924-1929] should be the prelude to impoverishment and depression. Some austere and puritanical souls regard it both as an inevitable and a desirable nemesis on so much overexpansion, as they call it; a nemesis on man’s speculative spirit. It would, they feel, be a victory for the Mammon of Unrighteousness if so much prosperity was not subsequently balanced by universal bankruptcy.

We need, they say, what they politely call a ‘prolonged liquidation’ to put us right. The liquidation, they tell us, is not yet complete. But in time it will be. And when sufficient time has elapsed for the completion of the liquidation, all will be well with us again.

I do not take this view. I find the explanation of the current business losses, of the reduction in output, and of the unemployment which necessarily ensues on this not in the high level of investment which was proceeding up to the spring of 1929, but in the subsequent cessation of this investment. I see no hope of a recovery except in a revival of the high level of investment. And I do not understand how universal bankruptcy can do any good or bring us nearer to prosperity…

I do not understand it either. But many people do. And I do not understand why such people think as they do.


No do I understand why they think that way.  But I suspect that it has to do with political and rich elites preferring to have a more dominant share of a smaller pie than to rationally wanting to share a larger one.  As one of the commenters to Brad’s post put it:

We’ve been down this road before. “Auterity” is just a euphemism for getting the ignorant and foolish to support their own ruin in the name of wealth transference to the already wealthy by destroying government programs and services that benefit the middle class and needy.



75th Anniversary of a Revolution

Today, February 4, 2011, is the 75th anniversary of the publication of John Maynard Keynes’s book The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money”.  Like Adam Smith with the Wealth of  Nations and Karl Marx with Das Kapital, it’s a book that has inspired millions, both as alleged supporters and as supposed opponents, most of whom have never read it, let alone understood it.

Catch 22 Recovery

From UCLA: UCLA Anderson Forecast: U.S. recovery a long, slow climb; Calif. recovery weaker than nation’s (emphases mine):

“If the next year is going to bring exceptional growth,” [UCLA Anderson Forecast director Edward] Leamer writes, “consumers will need to express their optimism in the way that really counts — buying homes and cars. And that is not going to happen if businesses continue to express their pessimism in the way that really counts — by not hiring workers.”

The result is an economic Catch-22.

Leamer explains that significant reductions in the unemployment rate require real gross domestic product (GDP) growth in the 5.0 percent to 6.0 percent range. Normal GDP growth is 3.0 percent, enough to sustain unemployment levels, but not strong enough to put Americans back to work. As a consequence, consumers concerned about their employment status are reluctant to spend, and businesses concerned about growth are reluctant to hire.

The forecast for GDP growth this year is 3.4 percent, followed by 2.4 percent in 2011 and 2.8 percent in 2012, well below the 5.0 percent growth of previous recoveries and even a bit below the 3.0 percent long-term normal growth. With this weak economic growth comes a weak labor market, and unemployment slowly declines to 8.6 percent by 2012.

via Calculated Risk: UCLA’s Leamer: “A Homeless Recovery”.

This is actually not surprising unless one has never read Keynes.  It’s the kind of catch-22 that happens in a severe recession/depression.  The only ways to break out of it:

  1. Government increases spending – since most pols have (erroneously  concluded) that last year’s too-small stimulus proves govt spending doesn’t work, our politicians have ruled this option out.
  2. Dramatic increase in exports and reduction in imports – but since most nations are trying to do this and it was a global recession and all countries cannot be net exporters at the same time (who would buy all those exports?), this won’t happen.
  3. We wait for the gradual elimination of excess capacity:  we wait for workers to die or retire or emigrate and we wait for business machinery to deteriorate and then need to be replaced.

The coming decade is looking very grim without a change in policy.

To learn from history, first listen to those who lived it / made it/ studied it. – Interview w/ Samuelson

Paul Samuelson is one of the great economists of the 20th century.  He was one of the first ones awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize.  His textbook on Principles was the standard text for at least 40 years and the model for all others.  He speaks in a two-part interview on the current economic crisis, the crisis in macro theory today, and even a few comments about modern textbooks.

An Interview With Paul Samuelson, Part One

An Interview With Paul Samuelson, Part Two

Interesting supplements to this interview are the summary of the history of modern macro theory by Krugman (I have post about it here) and a short history of macro and crises by Brad deLong (I have a post here.).