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General Issues

Why do you think we have so much controversy in macroeconomics compared

to microeconomics?

That is a hard question. It is certainly true that there is more agreement

among microeconomists as to how they approach things. That is, most

microeconomists start off with utility and profit maximization as the underlying

motives and go on from there. Macroeconomics is in some ways harder

since you are dealing with the whole economy; the field therefore requires

more simplifying assumptions to make anything manageable, to make the

problem simpler than it really is in the world. I think there is disagreement as

to which simplifying assumptions are the most natural or the most useful.

How important do you think it is for macroeconomics to have neoclassical

choice-theoretic foundations?

Well it is certainly true that all macro phenomena are the aggregate of many

micro phenomena; in that sense macroeconomics is inevitably founded on

microeconomics. Yet I am not sure that all macroeconomics necessarily has

to start off with microeconomic building-blocks. To give an analogy, all of

biology is in some sense the aggregate of particle physics, because all biological

creatures are made up of particles. That doesn’t mean that the natural

place to start in building biology is to start with particle physics and aggregate

up. Instead I would probably start with theory at the level of the organism

or the cell, not the level of the sub-atomic particle. We have a lot of models

like the IS–LM model that are very useful for studying the macroeconomy,

even though those models don’t start off with the individual unit and build up

from there.

Which papers or books do you feel have had the biggest impact on the

development of macroeconomics over the last 25 years?

The biggest impact has undoubtedly come from Lucas. He put the cracks into

the Keynesian consensus that existed in the 1960s. He really pulled macroeconomics

apart by proposing new and intriguing new ideas. The disagreements

today among macroeconomists have largely arisen from the critiques of

Lucas and of his followers. As you know, I don’t agree with Lucas’s solutions,

but I take the problems that he pointed out very seriously. A lot of the

work that I and other new Keynesians have done is a response to the problems

he pointed out in the old Keynesian ideas.

To some extent you’ve answered our next question. Where did you draw

inspiration for your own work?

It’s been a combination of influences. Part comes from the older generation

of macroeconomists. I view much of the work I do as building on the work of

Tobin, Modigliani and Friedman. I see a great deal of truth in the views they

were pushing. I also take the problems that Lucas pointed out very seriously.

A lot of new Keynesian work is trying to reformulate the 1960s Friedman–

Tobin view of the world. What is now called the neoclassical synthesis had a

large element of truth in it. On the other hand, it had problems, and Lucas

pointed out those problems very forcefully. We need to fix those problems

and address the concerns of Lucas while still maintaining the element of truth

in the neoclassical synthesis.

Keynes and the General Theory

One interpretation of the neoclassical synthesis which emerged at the end of

the 1950s suggested that the General Theory was a special case of a more

general classical model. Would you agree with that interpretation?

I would say that the classical model and the Keynesian model make different

assumptions about adjustment of prices. I think of the classical model as

being the model that assumes complete price flexibility, and therefore describes

a horizon over which it is plausible to make such an assumption.

Probably a period of years, rather than a period of months. The Keynesian

model applies over a horizon where wages and prices are relatively inflexible

or sluggish. Both models are special cases of a more general model which

allows a varying degree of flexibility and sluggishness in prices depending on

the horizon we want to study. When we study the effect of policies over a

quarter or a decade, we want to make different assumptions about the degree

of flexibility of prices.

Why do you think there are so many conflicting interpretations of the General

Theory?

There are a great many conflicting interpretations because Keynes had a lot

of different ideas. The ideas don’t necessarily have to be packaged all together,

so some people grab on to one set of ideas and say that this is really

what is central to what Keynes was saying, and other people grab on to

another set of ideas. The question is, when we look at the market imperfec436

tion that we call the business cycle, which set of general ideas from the

General Theory is the most important? There is so much in the General

Theory that it is hard to comprehend it all at once. Some is very important,

but some is not particularly important. Disagreements come by choosing

different pieces of Keynes’s world view and emphasizing those.

Do you think that, if Keynes had still been living in 1969, he would have

received the first Nobel Prize in Economics?

Oh, undoubtedly. I think there are a few very very important economists of

the century, and there is no question that Keynes has got to be on anybody’s

shortlist.