Monday, January 11, 2010

More on the soul of macroeconomics

Ironically, the primary foci of an article on macroeconomics in the 1/11/2010 New Yorker are Stephen Posner, a law guy, Eugene Fama, a finance guy, and Gary Becker, a microeconomist extraordinaire. John Cochrane makes what can be considered a cameo appearance, and Robert Lucas has a one line quote, "I don't want to do this."

Far be it from me to suggest there ought to be stark lines between macroeconomists and others, being someone who straddles that fence along with several others, but it's ironic that often those who have the most to say about the future and direction of macroeconomics would not identify themselves as such. That sort of thing also shows up, albeit more briefly, in the new SuperFreakonomics book, which remarks that it is not a book about the financial meltdown of 2008, and "[a]fter recent events, one might wonder if the macroeconomy is the domain of any economist" (page 16).

Posner, Becker, Fama, and others like Richard Thaler, Raghuram Rajan, and James Heckman certainly all have useful things to say. But I can't shake the feeling that many of these "macroeconomics-gets-a-thorough-reexamination" articles fail to pose useful questions with debate and suggested answers. What isn't particularly useful is debating whether the Chicago school approach, with its focus on rational behavior in response to prices and incentives, is right. Of course it is and it isn't. It's one simplified view of a very complex beast, not the alpha and omega and also not dead-wrong.

What's more useful are specific questions about policies before future economic crises and after. And there, the basic issues are (1) where on the scale of interventionist to laissez-faire do you end up, which is probably based on your perception of (2) how much relative market prices reflect relative social marginal utilities, i.e. what they ought to reflect if incentives are "right."