Diane Coyle, writing in an FT blog, says
“There are two tribes of economists, the macro and the micro. I’m one of the latter group. We have our empirical controversies, of course – much of our applied research concerns public policy choices in areas such as education and health, so vigorous disagreement is inevitable. But I think it’s fair to say that few of the micro disagreements compare in intensity to the all-out war of words between different macroeconomists about the effects of fiscal stimulus or austerity.”
She goes on to say that it is macroeconomists’ “certainty that’s astonishing”. Her comments could be summarised as asking why macroeconomists are so sure and shrill compared to their micro colleagues.
Now it could be that there is something odd about those who choose macro rather than other types of economics, but I’m not sure I’ve noticed any character traits more evident in macro people. (But who am I to judge - an open invitation for microeconomists to comment!?) It could be something to do with the nature of the theory and empirics involved, but since macro became microfounded that seems unlikely. I think the problem is in a way much more straightforward.
I think you only need to look at the recent UK election to understand the problem. One of the central themes of the Conservative’s attack on Labour involved their alleged incompetence at running the macroeconomy when they were in power. For whatever reason, macro rather than micro policy issues become central in political debates. That makes macro unusual for various reasons.
One immediate consequence is that many beyond the tribe of macroeconomists think they can write with authority of macroeconomic issues. As a recent example of a shrill macro debate Diane cites Krugman vs Ferguson. But this is not to compare like with like. On one side you have an economics Nobel Prize winner who has made important contributions to macroeconomics, and as a result is careful about what he writes. Both data and theory are respected. On the other side … well I’ve said what I think in an earlier post.
To take another politically charged topic, I have seen plenty of debates between climate change scientists and deniers who are not scientists. Often the scientist will go into detail to get the facts straight, and say how uncertain everything is, while their opponent by contrast will be confident and clear. A scientist will not be fooled by this confidence, but many others will be. When one side argues out of conviction or ideology or political bias rather than knowledge, it is difficult for someone who does have that knowledge not to respond in kind if they want to be convincing.
There is a deeper reason for shrillness, however. The debate over austerity is not a normal academic discussion about the likely size of parameter values. Here Diane is mistaken in saying that the key issue is whether the multiplier (the size of the impact of cuts in government spending on output) is greater or less than one. In talking about UK austerity, I have typically quoted OBR figures which assume a multiplier below one, which gives me the £4000 per average household cost of UK austerity. My own best guess would be that the multiplier has been larger than one, which gives me significantly higher costs, but I have never suggested that I know with certainty what the size of the multiplier has actually been. However there has, to my knowledge, been no public debate on these terms.
Instead supporters of austerity typically want to suggest that the multiplier is close to zero. They want to suggest that sacking nurses and cutting back on flood defences will be very rapidly met by an increase in private sector labour demand and investment. Although theoretically possible via various different mechanisms, the evidence and recent experience overwhelmingly suggests this does not normally happen in the kind of situation we are currently in. For much of the time those arguing for the virtues of current austerity seem to be doing so from a position of faith or political convenience rather than evidence.
Why is it important to recognise this? Because there is a danger that microeconomists may misdiagnose the problem, and suggest that macro contains some fundamental flaw which undermines eighty years of intellectual endeavour. This provides useful cover to those who have an ideological or political agenda, and want policymakers to ignore the bits of the discipline that clearly work. Sometimes microeconomists seem to think that if only they could disassociate themselves from macro, economics would become a better and more respectable subject. That is an illusion: the ideological and political forces that cause such problems for macro are not unique to it.
So I’m not sure that academic macroeconomists suffer from an excess of certainty compared to their micro colleagues. Instead I think the trouble with macro is that it is prone to ideological and political influence: like all economics, but just more so.