Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 31 August 2021

Is it true that “anything we can actually do we can afford”?


This was something Keynes said in a 1942 BBC address. By 'we' he meant the government, and by 'actually do' he meant the physical resources (e.g. labour) were available. He was talking about what he hoped would happen after the war, and against the austerity policies that had seen mass unemployment in the late 1920s and 1930s. He says in the same address:

With a big programme carried out at a regulated pace we can hope to keep employment good for many years to come. We shall, in fact, have built our New Jerusalem out of the labour which in our former vain folly we were keeping unused and unhappy in enforced idleness.”

It was a policy the UK pursued in the next few decades, after a few years producing full employment on average along with rapid growth and, initially at least, with little or no inflation. Keynes was proved correct. However in the 1960s and 1970s that was no longer the case, and we learnt through double digit inflation, and in the UK widespread disruption, that the real constraint on what you can do is inflation rather than full employment. It was always clear, however, at least to UK and other European economists, that how close you could get to full employment before inflation set in was governed by a complex and variable set of institutional factors. So Keynes’ statement became ‘governments can do anything as long as inflation remains stable’.

If inflation is the ultimate constraint on what we can actually do, why did governments start to worry about their own finances? Why did bodies like the IMF start advocating fiscal rules to limit government borrowing and later independent fiscal institutions to monitor government deficits? Some may have wanted to reduce the growth of government spending, but the official reason was real enough: deficit bias.

Deficit bias has been long forgotten as a result of the macroeconomic disaster that began in 2010, but it is crucial to understanding the origin of financial considerations influencing what we can actually do. To understand deficit bias you also need to understand another change that began in the 1970s and has now become dominant, which is how demand management is done.

In the UK in the decades after WWII, fiscal policy was used to stabilise the economy at full employment. Interest rates played a minor role, and arbitrary limits on personal borrowing were common. (This is similar to the policy proposal associated with MMT.) This made sense under the system of fixed exchange rates created by Bretton Woods. When that came to an end in the early 1970s, interest rate changes became more powerful because of their impact on exchange rates, and that was enhanced as credit controls were gradually abolished.

The world moved, often erratically, towards a system we have today: macroeconomic stabilisation using interest rates set by central banks trying to hit inflation targets. This in turn created the problem of deficit bias. In a world where fiscal policy stabilises the economy, deficit bias isn’t an issue because deficits increase in recessions but fall in booms. The economic cycle and the need for fiscal policy stabilisation means that government debt broadly looks after itself. To put it another way, labour shortages and high inflation are the cost an irresponsible government pays for spending to much or taxing too little.

In contrast, in a world where interest rates are varied to stabilise the economy, inflation is no longer a constraint on fiscal policy. In this world, Keynes’ statement of the title again becomes true, because central banks will look after inflation. The only cost of spending a lot or taxing too little would be high interest rates, but as these rates were set by someone else, the political cost to governments of running large deficits is more opaque as long as the increase in rates wasn’t too rapid. 

This is perhaps the most important point of this post. Deficit targets or more sophisticated fiscal rules only make sense in a world where interest rates are able to be used to target inflation. It follows automatically that fiscal rules make no sense when rates are stuck at their lower bound. These two sentences are sufficient to show that 2010 austerity makes no sense. The reason MMTers don’t like fiscal rules follows automatically from their wish that fiscal policy rather than interest rates target inflation.

In the three decades after the fall in Bretton Woods, governments in the US and Europe (not the UK) took advantage of this new freedom monetary policy stabilisation had given them. Global debt to GDP ratios almost doubled. This is deficit bias. [1]

To what extent was this deficit bias a problem? In the short and medium term for the major economies (treating the Eurozone as a country) not much, but in the longer term (by which I mean centuries rather than decades) there is bound to be a limit on how large government debt could be in relation to GDP. [2] So for that reason alone it makes sense to try and make it hard, through rules and institutions, for governments to increase debt at that rate. It should also increase welfare if governments are discouraged from increasing debt for no good reason beyond buying elections.

I think the evidence that inflation stabilisation by independent central banks was highly successful compared to all the other stabilisation regimes that preceded it is overwhelming. So having good fiscal rules that make it difficult for governments to try and win elections by increasing debt is also worth having. This is why I support good fiscal rules.

However, I also think bad fiscal rules are far worse than no fiscal rules at all. It is vitally important that government debt should be allowed to rise in a number of situations. Fiscal rules that prevent that do far more harm than good. There are two clear situations today where debt needs to rise. The first is in severe recessions, where interest rates get stuck at their lower bound [3]. The second is where large investments are required to produce a large future benefit. The most obvious example of the latter is climate change.

Why are there so many bad fiscal rules around today? I think one important reason is that the political right has seen them as a way of reducing the size of the state. The media have not helped, by grossly exaggerating the cost of higher debt and using any departure from a (bad) fiscal rule as a sign of government irresponsibility.

Which brings me to what inspired this post, Adam Tooze’s Chartbook No.34. This takes an MMT perspective, and ignores all the points I make about interest rate stabilisation and inflation. Which is understandable, when interest rates have been at or close to their lower bound for over a decade and inflation has not been an issue. The puzzle he addresses is how can we describe a government project (project X) as crowding out something else, when the amount the government could borrow before hitting an inflation constraint far exceeds what it actually borrows. You cannot say doing X stopped you doing Y and Z, because you could have done X, Y and Z.

I suspect this is usually an artificial question, because for me at least doing X, Y and Z would bring the economy to the point where it either hits the inflation constraint (in an MMT world) or where interest rates start rising (in today’s world). This would be a certainty if Y was greening the economy and Z were the fiscal transfers to make a carbon tax (or equivalent) politically acceptable. In both cases there is a clear opportunity cost of doing X.

An example of X where this arose recently was Trump’s tax cuts for the rich. I am happy to say the main problem with this is it was a transfer of income from the many to the few. The rich were better off, and that money either comes from the rest of the population now or in the future. Most people don’t see that because Trump paid for it by borrowing. For me [4], that means it’s also an example of deficit bias: raising the deficit just to pay off those who gave you money to win the election. [5]

I agree with Adam Tooze when he says there is no fixed pot of money. The government is the owner of the magic money tree, and in the US, UK and collective Eurozone today can borrow freely. I disagree on three points. First, I think the constraint in MMT type economies (where only fiscal policy does macro stabilisation) is normally inflation and not available resources, and second I think we can talk about the opportunity cost of bad policies even when the inflation constraint does not bite for the reason I gave above. Third, in today’s economies, it does make sense to ask whether deficits are justified or not, just as it did over the period of deficit bias and subsequently.

[1] The term deficit bias is bound to involve value judgments. No one should describe the rise in government debt after the GFC and the pandemic as deficit bias, because debt rose for very good reasons. Deficit bias is a rising government debt to GDP ratio over decades for no obviously good reason, and what a good reason is has to be a value judgement.

[2] Debt around 100% of GDP is fine. But if it doubles every 30 years for no good reason, you are over 1000% a century later and over 10,000% after that.

[3] This is why the fiscal rule that Jonathan Portes and I proposed here contained a knock-out where the rule no longer applies when interest rates hit the lower bound. Any fiscal rule today that fails to have something similar is a bad fiscal rule. It also focused on the current balance, putting no constraint on investment to green the economy, for example.

[4] I admit that a Republican who thought the economy was better off if taxes on the rich were reduced would not call this deficit bias. In that case all you can do is point out that there is little sign his belief is correct (e.g.)

[5] Does the relationship between r (the interest rate) and g (the nominal growth rate) matter here? I don’t think so, because we are talking about a permanent flow (tax cuts) rather than a one-off project.

Tuesday 24 August 2021

Like so much of what this government does, tackling climate change is just for show

If there was ever one picture that tells you all you needed to know about why this government is almost unique in the world in abandoning almost all measures to tackle the pandemic, it is the Tory benches during the Afghanistan debate. Hardly a mask to be seen among them, despite the government’s own advice to wear masks in crowded indoor places. Do they care that their lack of masks could potentially give other MPs and parliamentary staff COVID? They care not at all. This is the true ‘I’m alright, Jack’ generation of Tory MPs.

With COVID this government no longer feels it needs to even give the pretence of trying to reduce deaths from COVID or cases of long covid. It seems to have convinced enough of the electorate that it has led the world in vaccinating its adult population, and anything else is just detail. For these MPs, and those who lead them, living with COVID has become synonymous with doing almost nothing about it beyond the vaccination of adults. As a result, cases and hospitalisations are now rising again even before schools return, and deaths are now averaging around 100 a day.

This callous disregard for the people it is governing, just so long as they get enough votes, is not confined to COVID. Of course all political parties favour some groups over others, but this is the first administration in the UK that cares about themselves, friends and financial backers alone, as long as their survival in power is assured. It is why I call this government a populist plutocracy.

All this is crucial when thinking about the greatest crisis facing humanity over the next few decades, climate change. While we can try for 1.5 or 2 degrees higher temperatures, if we do little or nothing things will become far far worse causing mass movements of population around the globe. In addition there is a concern that we may be close to setting off natural processes which could raise temperatures well beyond what is tolerable for large parts of the world, leading to global chaos and massive human depopulation. It’s perhaps not yet the most likely outcome, but it is not an insignificant possibility either. It may have happened, for different reasons, on the Earth hundreds of million years ago.

Given these possibilities, if civilisation as we know it is to survive, the world has no choice but to work together to all but eliminate carbon emissions within a few decades. But this is not how many MPs in our current government see it. The choice our government sees is whether to pay lip service to tough climate change change targets while not doing nearly enough to meet those targets, or to do almost nothing at all.

The Committee on Climate Change is an independent body set up by an act of parliament to advise on all matters to do with climate change, and in particular it monitors the UK’s progress in meeting its climate change targets. In June this year it issued two reports which found that the government had failed to enact sufficient measures to meet its own targets by a huge margin.

This is hardly surprising. It is easy for this government to avoid spending money or taking difficult decisions, because it knows the Prime Minister setting targets gets much more publicity than reports explaining how they will be missed by a mile. An additional reason for taking the ‘promise a lot, do almost nothing’ approach is that there is serious disquiet among some Tory MPs about doing anything.

Opposition to action on climate change is beginning to organise among Tory backbenchers. Ian Dunt suggests a new group may soon form, perhaps called the Environmental Research Group following in the Orwellian tradition of similar groups for Brexit and COVID, to campaign against any further measures to meet climate change targets. Just as worrying, sections of the UK press, including Murdoch, have long questioned the scientific consensus.

They will have no impact before the COP26 summit hosted by the UK later this year. This summit is a gift for Johnson, as it allows him to present himself as a global leader and crusader on global warming simultaneously. The UK’s own record on implementation is not conducive to a successful conference, but Johnson knows his press and the BBC will follow his line that the meeting was a personal triumph whatever the outcome really is.

He needs this success because polls suggest voters are overwhelmingly frightened about climate change, and this concern goes across all age groups. He hopes that a self-styled Johnson success in the autumn at COP26 will be his equivalent of the UK vaccination programme - the success that allows his voters to excuse all other failures. Once that is achieved, the climate change deniers in his party can hold sway, much as a similar group of MPs eventually had their day on COVID.

They, rather than expert opinion (aka metropolitan elite) and moral imperatives (aka WOKE), will get their way because the Conservatives of the last decade have boxed themselves into failing to act on climate change in two ways. The first is most obvious: deficit targets. One way measures to tackle climate change (much cheaper than dealing with the effects of the higher temperatures they will avoid) can happen is through deficit finance. But as long as the Tories follow the macropolicy of the Swabian housewife this will not happen.

The second involves the private sector costs of dealing with climate change. Things like carbon taxes or the equivalent. What proponents of the Green New Deal have always understood is that many individuals who have to pay higher prices for the carbon they are indirectly creating need some compensation for the impact of those higher prices on their budgets. You can do this in two ways. One is through deficit finance, and the other is through redistribution. Both go against Tory policy. A failure to compensate leads to political unpopularity, or worse (the gilet jaunes of France, for example).

This is why it is almost impossible for the current Conservative party to tackle climate change. It is why Cameron ended up wanting to ‘get rid of the green crap’. If we and others keep electing similar governments the world’s progress in fighting climate change will be too slow, with catastrophic consequences. The UK plays a role beyond its carbon footprint as a result of hosting COP26 this autumn, and it is a tragedy that the UK’s leader at this time is an irresponsible showman with little respect outside our shores.

Monday 16 August 2021



Sado-populism is a term used by Timothy Snyder, a Professor of history at Yale University, in the fourth of a series of short lectures he published in 2017. The lecture was perhaps inspired by the election of Trump. It was publicised in the UK recently by Alastair Campbell in The New European, who applied it to Brexit and Johnson. In this post I want to relate this idea to my own discussion (e.g here) of plutocratic populism.

The most trivial difference is terminology. Snyder talks about oligarchy, and how the US under Trump was an oligarchy. However in his third lecture in the same series Snyder is clear that you can use the terms oligarchy, populism or kleptocracy to describe what he is talking about, so there is no difference here.

Why sado-populism? Snyder says that normal populists offer policies that will benefit the people they appeal to to get their support, but Trump didn’t do this. Instead he offered policies, like a large tax cut to the rich, that will hurt most those who voted for Trump, because to a first approximation lower taxes for the rich mean higher taxes or less spending on the poor. The idea that tax cuts for the rich create aggregate wealth which trickles down to everyone else is a right wing myth.

So he uses sado-populism to denote a form of populism that in reality does harm to most of those that support it. So how do sado-populists like Trump (and, I would agree with Campbell, Johnson) get elected. To some extent it is by fooling people about who will benefit from their policies (hence trickle-down), but mainly through a culture war. The aspect of the culture war that Snyder talks about for the US of course is race. More generally, the offer made to supporters of a sado-populist is status rather than income.

Typically the way to create status is to hark back to the past when such status was very evident. One of the things that differentiates sado-populism from a more typical democratic platform is that it is more about the past than the future. Here the link to Brexit is very clear. As Campbell notes, in the US it’s “not ‘ Make America Great’ but ‘Make America Great AGAIN.’ Or, bringing it to Britain once more, Take BACK control”. One of the fascinating things about the Ashcroft poll published after the referendum is how Brexit voters thought the past was better than today, while Remain voters did not.

This is why Johnson keeps talking about ‘world-beating’, and right wing ‘journalists’ keep harping back to WWII or even Empire. A sado-populist looks for ‘the other’ who can be demonised and then tormented so that at least their supporters can feel they are better than someone else. So this government is brutal to asylum seekers, and hard on benefit claimants, not because they happen to be mean but because that is how to win votes. The UK government is also is very antagonistic to attempts to reduce racism, for similar reasons.

I think Snyder's analysis is broadly correct, and his discussion complements my own thoughts on populist plutocracy. As I have sometimes said, the focus of my discussion tends to be on the supply rather than the demand side, by which I mean how did part of the rich elite set out to transform democracy into a populist plutocracy rather than just support one of the two dominant political parties. In doing this I focus on two elements that Snyder also mentions as critical to the formation of rule by oligarchy: the media and inequality.

One interesting aspect of Snyder’s discussion of the rise of oligarchy in the US is the emphasis he puts on the decline of local newspapers. He suggests that with local newspapers readers could relate the news to things they knew about and that were therefore clearly true or false. With the decline of local newspapers we now have just ‘media’ which largely talks about facts that are remote from readers/viewers and can therefore be described as fake news.

It’s an interesting idea. It is certainly true that a feature of both Trump and Johnson’s government is that they lie all the time, and that it would be hard to convince others to go with you, internet based cults aside, if the entire media reported reality. This is why Fox News and talk radio in the US, and the right wing press in the UK, are so essential to sado-populist leaders. In the UK having a public broadcaster with a huge audience that is vulnerable to state funding cuts turns out, like so much of the UK’s pluralist democracy, to be highly vulnerable when a lying sado-populist is in charge.

The BBC aside, understanding why parts of the UK press went rogue is hard, because we are talking about the psychology of a few men. My guess is that Brexit was a radicalising moment in this respect. All the right wing press have supported it for some time, but getting it over the line required them to argue against the leader of the party they normally support, and also meant they lied their socks off. (In truth they had had practice from what they had done before.) Later they saw the chance of getting their journalists to lead that party. As Johnson sometimes says, the owner of the Telegraph is his real boss. By forsaking truth they gained influence like never before.

As to those that read these papers, I think we should never underestimate the power of propaganda for the majority that spend so little time thinking about politics.

Should I talk about sado-populism rather than talk about plutocratic populism? As I have always tried to make clear, I use populism in the sense Jan-Werner Müller uses it. A populist in this sense will always talk as if they are representing the views of the people, when in fact they only speak for some of the people. Remember how Brexit was ‘the will of the people’ when around half the people opposed it. Almost by definition this form of populism is divisive, with a clear ‘them’ whose wishes are irrelevant. By ignoring this 'them' and calling them the elite they can give some status to 'the people' who appear to have finally beaten the elite (although in reality the elite has just fragmented).

If you add in plutocracy, then it is clear the true interests of a plutocratic populist will be the interests of those in that plutocracy. Again it almost follows that everyone else, particularly those who are not ‘the people’, will suffer as a result. What I think Snyder’s discussion adds to my own is that what is offered to ‘the people’ by populists is status: an ‘other’ which is clearly beneath ‘the people’. Furthermore that status may have been lost compared to what it was, and the populist plutocrat or sado populist aims to return it to ‘the people’.

Snyder talks about the US as being on a knife edge between plutocratic populism and democracy. At the end of his talk Snyder briefly discusses how the US can end up on the right side of this knife edge, and then get off it. He suggests the opposition to plutocratic populism has to talk about the future, with clear policies about how to make the future better.

I was reminded of this when reading this piece by Alan Finlayson. He argues that Labour spends too much time talking about values and not enough time formulating demands. Values are timeless, and our plutocratic populist leaders are more than happy to talk about values. In contrast the future is about demands: demands for a better future. Get the demands right and detailed enough to move beyond three word slogans, and you also make it clear what your values are.

Tuesday 10 August 2021

COVID in England, and another wasted summer


One of the rules in this pandemic is that Johnson’s government does not learn from mistakes. Johnson, his ministers and many of his MPs prefer a self-serving libertarianism to looking at evidence. As a result, England has got rid of every measure aimed at reducing the chance of passing on the virus, while most other countries have retained some controls like mask wearing. Ministers are even telling workers to go back into the office, just as they did last summer.

The lesson they failed to learn from the summer of last year is not to imagine you have solved the COVID problem. Last summer cases and deaths were low, restrictions were lifted and despite what their scientists were telling them many in government thought it was time to focus on other issues. Sunak encouraged people to eat out which helped start cases rising again. In the autumn and winter it became clear how foolish that belief was..

This year we are again seeing a similar attitude. This is not helped in some quarters by a kind of perverse triumphalism that COVID cases have for a time fallen or stabilised in England. They said the experts were wrong, we didn’t get 100,000 cases, which implies for them that they were right to ignore the experts when they abandoned all controls. For those of us with painful memories of Brexit, we see a similar pattern repeating itself.

Forecasts in any social science are inherently very difficult. I suspect forecasting in a pandemic, where so much depends on how many people are being cautious, is a bit like economic forecasting: both are almost certain to be wrong. But in both cases it’s the wrong way to judge disciplines. What matters is if they get the policy analysis right. Economists were right that Brexit would be costly for the UK economy. Equally the experts were right that abandoning all restrictions on 19th July would tend to raise case numbers compared to what they would have otherwise been. Unfortunately many on the political right are so determined to ignore science they will take any opportunity to rubbish it.

As the Chart below shows, cases in England began falling from July 17th, while cases in Scotland have been falling since the beginning of July. The difference is probably due to a combination of school holidays and the Euros.

What about the end of restrictions on 19th July. The whole point of Johnson urging people to be careful after 19th July was to minimise that effect. Evidence suggests the advice (or common sense) succeeded in moderating the rise after 19th July. However inevitably that effect will wear off as time goes on. Although cases are now roughly flat in both countries, they are nearly half the level relative to population in Scotland compared to England. Cases are likely to increase again in England, in September if not before.

The government says we have to ‘live with COVID’. But there is a world of difference between COVID being endemic with average cases below 100 or even 1,000 a day compared to average cases at 20,000 a day. Living with COVID is not equivalent to ignoring it. So what should the government be doing now to prepare for autumn and winter. The first obvious move is to vaccinate older children: 12-17 rather than the 16-17 already planned.

Expert opinion is mixed on this issue, but the cost benefit analysis presented in this paper is persuasive. Perhaps for that reason, many other countries are going ahead with vaccinating teens, as this chart from the FT shows.

Devi Sridhar has a good discussion of the issues here.

Vaccinating teens with two doses will take some time, so in the meantime the government needs to help making schools safer. Yet making schools safer seems to be the opposite of what Schools minister Gavin Williamson has been doing. His record is lamentable, as a recent report from the Institute for Government shows (good summary also here), and he ended compulsory masks in schools before the government extended that to adults. Apart from bringing back mask wearing, the government should be improving ventilation in schools, following other countries as Stephen Reicher suggests.

The government should also reverse their mistake in reintroducing mandatory mask-wearing in situations where people gather indoors (shops and transport). As I noted here, most people want them to do this, and most experts want this too, but so far the government has allowed the irresponsible minority to determine policy. Why not publicise the use of more effective masks, as well as providing them in hospitals, care homes and to the vulnerable?

As the chart below shows, the UK continues to be the worst performer alongside Spain in terms of the last wave of COVID cases compared to our closest neighbours, although the US with even worse political problems involving the Republican opposition and vaccination may end up surpassing us.(On hospitalisations we are joined by the US, and for deaths Portugal.)

While both the UK and US have particular problems with self-serving libertarianism, this is not absent in other countries, and most governments have struggled to understand the basic rules for dealing with a pandemic, with or without vaccines.

The basic rules of how to handle a pandemic during and after people are vaccinated are straightforward. After an outbreak caused by a new variant, governments should use restrictions and mitigation to bring cases down to a level that allows nearly all people to fully participate in the economy and public life. Once you have cases at that level, you release restrictions to a point that ensures that R stays at or below one. The level of restrictions can vary with the seasons to avoid autumn/winter surges. If that is done, new variants are less likely to emerge at home, deaths, hospitalisations and cases of long covid will be lower and the economy can fully recover. In addition, if dominant variants arrive from abroad (lambda?) you have more resources to react to avoid the point at which hospitals start cancelling cancer operations.

If instead governments allow cases to remain high because they abolished restrictions and failed to fully mitigate, and excuse this failure by talking about saving the economy, they are both lying and are negligent with public health and the economy.

Tuesday 3 August 2021

Relearning old ideas in macroeconomics after the New Classical Counter Revolution


This post is a follow up to a post by Chris Dillow. He makes two claims about macroeconomics. To understand this you need to know about the distinction between mainstream and heterodox economics. It is difficult to define what divides the two groups (papers/chapters are written trying to do so), but we can make some observations. Most economists in academic departments are mainstream, and heterodox economists fall into lots of different schools. Another observation is that mainstream economists almost completely ignore what heterodox economists do. What is not true is that all heterodox economists are left wing and all mainstream economists are not. 

Chris’s first claim is that much of heterodox economics is the macro that was fashionable many years ago. The second is about the mainstream. He suggests there was a ‘great forgetting’ in the 1980s, such that apparently new ideas today are just rehashed old ideas that seem to have been forgotten. I think there is some validity to both these points, and I hope to explain here why this has happened and how they are related.

The great forgetting happened because of a methodological revolution in macro, the New Classical Counter Revolution (NCCR). Many at the time focused on one aspect of that revolution - an attack on the mainstream Keynesian macroeconomics of the time. That failed fairly quickly, but what lasted was a methodological revolution, which is often called the microfoundation of macroeconomics. I have written about the NCCR here.

Before the NCCR, macro was almost a different subject to microeconomics. Macro’s main theory, Keynesian economics, could be written in aggregate equations and could be estimated using aggregate data, but it was sometimes hard to relate it to microeconomic theory. Partly for that reason, macro contained different schools of thought, where it was hard to relate one ‘school’ to another.

The NCCR insisted that any macro model should not only be derived from microeconomic theory, but also that the theory was used in a consistent manner. By unifying macro and micro economics, it appealed to young economists in particular. Very quickly academics realised you could also formalise aspects of pre-NCCR Keynesian economics in a microfounded way, and the microfoundations hegemony within mainstream economics became complete. As all macroeconomists within the mainstream talked the same language (microeconomics), to the extent there existed schools of thought, these related to beliefs about parameter values within a common theoretical framework (which in turn those beliefs might reflect ideological preferences).

This reduction in the fragmentation in mainstream macro is an important unifying force. Pre-NCCR you could go to a macro seminar given by someone from a different school of thought and have little idea what they were talking about. Post-NCCR you could do the same and know exactly what they are talking about, and even make comments on their work, but just think it was not very relevant to the real world.

One of the negative aspects of the NCCR was it led to the ‘great forgetting’ Dillow talks about. For some the NCCR was year zero in macroeconomics, with everything that had gone before (that was outside the microfoundations hegemony) of little interest. The example that is close to home for me is described here. I had done a lot of work applying the John Williamson’s FEER model of equilibrium exchange rates, which uses pre-microfoundations techniques. The approach was rediscovered by Obstfeld and Rogoff who used a microfounded model (the ‘New Open Economy’ approach, which applied the microfoundations of imperfect competition to international trade). Which was fine, but as far as I know Obstfeld and Rogoff never acknowledged that earlier literature started by John Williamson. It was a perfect example of a great forgetting.

Having year zeros in any discipline is a bad idea. My view reflects an argument I have often made: microfoundations are fine, but the microfoundations hegemony is not. By hegemony I mean seeing other macro as old fashioned and not.worthy of publication in top journals. Some economists had a stronger reaction and chose to be heterodox economists outside the mainstream. They felt microeconomics didn’t deserve this central role in macroeconomics, or felt it made no sense microfounding macro. I think it’s fair to say that after the NCCR it was more difficult if not impossible for those economists to get on the mainstream train.

The analogue to this is the point Dillow makes, that a lot of heterodox economics is what he remembers learning before the NCCR. That observation isn't a slur on heterodox economists, but rather to note that some of what they do is a continuation of pre-NCCR macro.

A good example of that comes from MMT, where a key idea is that we should use fiscal policy rather than monetary policy for macroeconomic stabilisation at all times (and not just when rates are at the lower bound). That reflects how macro policy was done in the UK in the 1960s and mid 1970s. It is quite possible to argue that case within the mainstream (although most mainstream economists would disagree), but I don’t believe MMT economists would wish to do that.

However the NCCR didn't create heterodox macroeconomics. The heterodox economics I remember from studying at Cambridge in the early 1970s was a rejection of ‘neo-classical economics’. At its simplest, neoclassical economics is how producers who maximise profits interact with consumers who maximise utility in perfect markets (where perfect means there are a large number of producers and consumers for the same product so everyone is a price taker). As Chris notes, the theory implies people are paid their ‘marginal products’.

If you asked most mainstream economists today if what they do assumes the validity of neo-classical economics, they would probably laugh. As I repeatedly say, much of economics today is about studying markets that are far from perfect. (We can debate endlessly whether having perfect markets (and associated optimality conditions) is a useful or misleading reference point.) Economics has also grown well beyond the study of markets and their imperfections, to include game theory and behavioural economics for example. None of this stops right wing economists using ideas from neoclassical economics when it suits them.

Another feature of microeconomics today is that it is dominated by empirical analysis. The days when the heights of the subject were highly mathematical proofs about the nature of general equilibrium are long gone.

However we now need to go back to the NCCR in macro. The microeconomics the proponents of the NCCR took to remake macroeconomics was essentially the neoclassical economics that microeconomists were simultaneously moving beyond. New Keynesian economists brought a form of imperfect competition into DSGE models to enable a formalisation of price or wage rigidity, but it remains the case that the basic DSGE model is based on pretty neoclassical microfoundations. (The clearest exposition of this is a book by Athreya.)

We can now see an additional reason for the barrier between heterodox and mainstream macroeconomists. Macroeconomics has adopted the neoclassical economics that heterodox economists had objected to over decades before the NCCR.

While I personally regard post-NCCR macro as progressive in a Lakatos sense, I believe its hegemony is unwarranted. I learnt a great deal about the world working in pre-NCCR macro, and this has been complemented rather than duplicated by what I learnt from microfounded macro. (I have published plenty of papers in both.) Mainstream macroeconomics now needs to follow micro in becoming more empirical, and one of the ways it can do this is by resurrecting the pre-NCCR style of modelling. This involves both econometric studies of individual relationships or sub-systems, and the use of structural econometric models (what Blanchard calls policy models) that Chris mentions in his post. These models are an eclectic mix of theory and econometric studies of individual relationships or sub-systems.

As I note in this paper, it should be worrying that policy institutions like the IMF and Fed still do a great deal of this kind of analysis, but mainstream macro in the top journals does almost none. The time has passed when we can excuse this fact as reflecting old-fashioned policy institutions, or that such analysis is flawed because of identification problems or the Lucas critique. If mainstream academic macro will not venture into these directions, perhaps some heterodox economists can take their place.