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5.2 The Influence of Robert E. Lucas Jr

Professor Robert E. Lucas Jr is widely acknowledged as the originator and

central figure in the development of the new classical approach to macroeconomics

and has been described by Michael Parkin (1992) as ‘the leading

macro mountaineer of our generation’. In recognition of Lucas’s seminal

research in macroeconomics, in October 1995 the Royal Swedish Academy

of Sciences announced its decision to award him the Nobel Memorial Prize in

Economics ‘for having developed and applied the hypothesis of rational

expectations, and thereby having transformed macroeconomic analysis and

deepened our understanding of economic policy’. The award of this prestigious

prize to Lucas came as no surprise to economists since, without doubt,

his important contributions have made him the most influential macroeconomist

during the last quarter of the twentieth century (see Fischer, 1996a; Hall,

1996; Svensson, 1996; Hoover, 1988, 1992, 1999; Snowdon and Vane, 1998).

While some commentators see Lucas’s contributions to business cycle analysis

as ‘part of the natural progress of economics’ (Chari, 1998), or as ‘part of

the steady accumulation of knowledge’ (Blanchard, 2000), others make frequent

reference to ‘revolution’ or counter-revolution when discussing the

influence of Lucas’s contributions to macroeconomics (Tobin, 1996; Snowdon

and Vane, 1999b; Woodford, 2000).

Although Lucas made explicit use of the rational expectations hypothesis

in analysing optimal investment policy as early as 1965, it was not until he

began to wrestle with aggregate supply issues, within a Walrasian general

equilibrium framework, that the real significance of this hypothesis for macroeconomics

became clear (Fischer, 1996a). While the Lucas and Rapping

(1969) paper is perhaps the first ‘new classical’ paper in spirit, because of its

emphasis on the equilibrium (voluntary) nature of unemployment and its

utilization of the intertemporal labour substitution hypothesis (see Hoover,

1988 and Chapter 6), it was the series of papers written by Lucas and

published in the period 1972–8 that established the analytical base of the

rational expectations equilibrium approach to research into aggregate ecoThe

nomic fluctuations (business cycles). Collectively these papers had an immense

influence on the direction of macroeconomic research during the last

quarter of the twentieth century. One objective measure or indication of the

impact/influence that certain papers have on the development of macroeconomics

is provided by citation counts as recorded by the Social Science

Citations Index. In Table 5.1 citation counts are provided for the three most

heavily cited papers written by Lucas (1972a, 1973, 1976) in the area of

mainstream macroeconomics, together with one example taken from the field

of economic growth (Lucas, 1988). In order to help place the influence of

these papers in context we also provide information on citation counts for

three other well-known and heavily cited papers, namely those by Friedman

(1968a) and Kydland and Prescott (1977, 1982).

Table 5.1 Citation counts: 1966–97

Article 1966–70 1971–75 1976–80 1981–97 Total Average

citations per

year since


Friedman (1968a) 30 148 238 508 924 31

Kydland and – – 25 499 524 25

Prescott (1977)

Kydland and – – – 443 443 28

Prescott (1982)

Lucas (1972a) – 12 112 503 627 24

Lucas (1973) – 10 122 583 715 29

Lucas (1976) – – 105 654 759 35

Lucas (1988) – – – 568 568 57

Source: Snowdon and Vane (1998).

As Table 5.1 suggests, the influence of Lucas has been tremendously

important for the direction of macroeconomics since 1970. However, other

influential American exponents of new classical macroeconomics during the

1970s included Thomas Sargent, Robert Barro, Edward Prescott and Neil

Wallace. In the UK the new classical approach, in particular the need to

incorporate the rational expectations hypothesis into macroeconomic analysis,

was mainly championed by Patrick Minford (see interviews with Professors

Barro and Minford in Snowdon et al., 1994).

Building on the insights developed by Milton Friedman (1968a) and Edmund

Phelps (1968) concerning the neglect of endogenous expectations in Keynesian

macro models, the work of Lucas (1972a, 1972b, 1973, 1975, 1976) was

crucial in introducing macroeconomists to Muth’s (1961) rational expecta222

tions hypothesis, together with its enormous implications for theoretical and

empirical work (Lucas, 1981a). In particular, with the introduction of rational

expectations the standard Keynesian models seemed unable to deliver their

traditional policy conclusions. It soon became apparent that what Alan Blinder

refers to as the ‘Lucasian revolution’ represented a much more powerful and

potentially damaging challenge to the Keynesian mainstream than the monetarist

critique, which was of longer standing (see Snowdon, 2001a). Lucas

recalls that he was ‘raised as a monetarist in the 1960s’ and that Friedman

‘has been an enormous influence’. Indeed, during the 1990s, Lucas still

thought of himself as a ‘monetarist’ (Lucas, 1994b; Snowdon and Vane,

1998). But while orthodox monetarism presented itself as an alternative to

the standard Keynesian model, it did not constitute a radical theoretical

challenge to it (see Laidler, 1986). Thus while the mark I 1970s version of

new classical macroeconomics initially evolved out of monetarist macroeconomics,

and incorporates certain elements of that approach (such as the

monetarist explanation of inflation), it is clear that new classical economics

should be regarded as a separate school of thought from orthodox monetarism.

While the new classical school during the 1970s was undoubtedly

‘monetarist’ in terms of its policy prescriptions, according to Hoover (1984)

the more radical tone to new classical conclusions stems from key theoretical

differences between Lucas and Friedman, and the roots of this theoretical

divide are methodological: while Friedman is a Marshallian, Lucas is a

Walrasian. Despite their methodological differences, De Vroey (2001) is

undoubtedly correct in arguing that ‘Friedman and Lucas have probably been

the most influential economists of the second half of the twentieth century:

between them they were able to throw the Keynesian paradigm off its pedestal’.

In his review of Tobin’s (1980a) book, Asset Accumulation and Economic

Activity: Reflections on Contemporary Macroeconomic Theory, Lucas (1981b)

declared that:

Keynesian orthodoxy or the neoclassical synthesis is in deep trouble, the deepest

kind of trouble in which an applied body of theory can find itself. It appears to be

giving seriously wrong answers to the most basic questions of macroeconomic


Why and how Lucas and other new classical economists came to this negative

view of Keynesian economics during the 1970s is the main theme of this


In the remainder of this chapter we have four main objectives. First, to

discuss the central theoretical propositions which underlie new classical models

(section 5.3). Second, in the light of this discussion, to consider the new

classical theory of the business cycle (section 5.4). Third, to examine the

main policy implications that derive from the new classical approach to

macroeconomics (section 5.5). Finally (section 5.6) we assess the impact that

the new classical school has had on the development of macroeconomics.