How do you judge the health of an academic discipline? Is macroeconomics rotten or flourishing? Stephen Williamson is right that in one sense it is flourishing: many interesting avenues are being explored, and lots of interesting papers are getting written. Furthermore there is a common language. Of course there are pronounced local dialects, but there is mobility to, so having a freshwater dialect does not stop you giving a seminar that will be appreciated in a saltwater department, or indeed working in a saltwater department. So as an intellectual pursuit, one could claim that times have never been better for academic macro.
Society does fund some academics to engage in purely intellectual pursuits, but macroeconomics is not one of these. Yet much of the flourishing of ideas and research that is currently taking place has been inspired by recent events, and is directly or indirectly policy relevant. However having lots of ideas that are relevant to policy is not sufficient to make an academic discipline useful. It also needs to respond to the evidence in sorting out what ideas are helpful and what are not, so that it can be a progressive endeavour. In this respect, academic macroeconomics appears all over the place, with strong disputes between alternative schools.
Is this because the evidence in macroeconomics is so unclear that it becomes very difficult to judge different theories? I think the inexact nature of economics is a necessary condition for the lack of an academic consensus in macro, but it is not sufficient. (Mark Thoma has a recent post on this.) Consider monetary policy. I would argue that we have made great progress in both the analysis and practice of monetary policy over the last forty years. One important reason for that progress is the existence of a group that is often neglected - macroeconomists working in central banks.
Unlike their academic counterparts, the primary goal of these economists is not to innovate, but to examine the evidence and see what ideas work. The framework that most of these economists find most helpful is the New NeoClassical Synthesis, or equivalently New Keynesian theory. As a result, it has become the dominant paradigm in analysing monetary policy.
That does not mean that every macroeconomist looking at monetary policy has to be a New Keynesian, or that central banks ignore other approaches. It is important that this policy consensus should be continually questioned, and part of a healthy academic discipline is that the received wisdom is challenged. However, it has to be acknowledged that policymakers who look at the evidence day in and day out believe that New Keynesian theory is the most useful framework currently around. I have no problem with academics saying ‘I know this is the consensus, but I think it is wrong’. However to say ‘the jury is still out' on whether prices are sticky is wrong. The relevant jury came to a verdict long ago.
It is obvious that when it comes to using fiscal policy in short term macroeconomic stabilisation there can be no equivalent claim to progress or consensus. The policy debates we have today do not seem to have advanced much since when Keynes was alive. From one perspective this contrast is deeply puzzling. The science of fiscal policy is not inherently more complicated. What I have called a pure countercyclical increase in government spending (higher government spending now, financed by debt which is paid off by lower government spending once we are no longer at the Zero Lower Bound) can hardly fail to be expansionary in a New Keynesian framework if that debt can be sold.
What has been missing with fiscal policy has been the equivalent of central bank economists whose job depends on taking an objective view of the evidence and doing the best they can with the ideas that academic macroeconomics provides. This group does not exist because the need to use fiscal policy for short term macroeconomic stabilisation is occasional either in terms of time (when the Zero Lower Bound applies) or space (countries within the Eurozone). As a result, when fiscal policy was required to perform a stabilisation role, policymakers had to rely on the academic community for advice, and here macroeconomics clearly failed. Pretty well any outside observer would describe its performance as rotten.
The contrast between monetary and fiscal policy tells us that this failure is not an inevitable result of the paucity of evidence in macroeconomics. I think it has a lot more to do with the influence of ideology, and the importance of what I have called the anti-Keynesian school that is a legacy of the New Classical revolution. The reasons why these influences are particularly strong when it comes to fiscal policy are fairly straightforward.
Two issues remain unclear for me. The first is how extensive this ideological bias is. Is the over dominance of the microfoundations approach related to the fact that different takes on the evidence have an unfortunate Keynesian bias? Second, is the degree of ideological bias in macro generic, or is it in part contingent on the particular historical circumstances of the New Classical revolution? These questions are important in thinking how this bias can be overcome.