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Background Information

As an undergraduate you studied history at the University of Chicago and

you also started graduate school as a student of history at Berkeley. Why did

you decide to switch to study economics as a postgraduate student back at

Chicago?

I was getting more interested in economics and economic history as a history

student. The work of Henri Pirenne, the Belgian historian, who stressed

economic forces influenced me. When I was at Berkeley I started taking some

economic history classes and even attended an economics course. That is

when I first learned what a technical field economics is and how impossible it

would be to pick it up as an amateur. I decided then that I wanted to switch to

economics. I didn’t have any hope of financial support at Berkeley to study

economics so that was what led me back to Chicago.

Did you find the techniques and tools used by economists difficult to master

when you did make the switch?

Sure, but it was exciting for me. I had no idea that people were using

mathematics for social science questions before I got into economics. Once I

became aware of that I enjoyed it enormously.

Was mathematics a strong subject for you when you were in high school?

In high school it was and in college I took a little bit, but dropped out. I was

not interested in hard science. I wasn’t really motivated to keep going in

maths, but when I learned how maths was being used in economics it rekindled

my interest in the field.

Which economists have had the most influence on your own work?

Dozens and dozens of people. Samuelson’s Foundations was a big influence

when I started graduate school. His book was just a bible for my generation

of economists. Friedman was a great teacher, really an unusual teacher.

Anyone from Chicago will tell you that.

In what respect? Was it his ability to communicate complex ideas?

That’s a hard question to answer. I think it was the breadth of problems he

showed that you could address with economic reasoning. That’s what Friedman

emphasized. No single problem was analysed all that deeply but the

range of problems included everything. So we got the impression, and rightly

so, that we were getting a powerful piece of equipment for dealing with any

problem that came up in human affairs.

To what extent did the work of the Austrians (Hayek and so on) influence your

ideas?

I once thought of myself as a kind of Austrian, but Kevin Hoover’s book

persuaded me that this was just a result of my misreading of Hayek and

others.

David Laidler [1992b] has drawn attention to what he described as ‘the

appalling low standards of historical scholarship amongst economists’. Is it

important for an economist to be a competent historian?

No. It is important that some economists be competent historians, just as it is

important that some economists be competent mathematicians, competent

sociologists, and so on. But there is neither a need nor a possibility for

everyone to be good at everything. Like Stephen Dedalus, none of us will

ever be more than a shy guest at the feast of the world’s culture.

Keynes’s General Theory and Keynesian Economics

You were born in 1937. The Great Depression was a huge influence on

economists such as Friedman, Samuelson and Tobin in stimulating their

interest in economics in the first place. Do you regard the Great Depression

as the premier macroeconomic event of the twentieth century?

I think that economic growth, and particularly the diffusion of economic

growth to what we used to call the Third World, is the major macroeconomic

event of the twentieth century. But the Great Depression is a good second. I

was too young to know what was going on at the time, but the Depression

Robert E. Lucas Jr 275

was the main influence on my parents. They became politically aware during

the 1930s. Politics and economics were issues that were always talked about

in my house when I was growing up.

How important do you think historical events are for theoretical developments?

For example it is generally recognized that the Great Depression led

to the General Theory.

Absolutely.

Do you think they are crucial?

Yes, I like that example.

What about the influence of increasing inflation in the 1970s? Do you think

that event played the same kind of role in the move away from Keynesian

economics, just as the Great Depression led to the development of Keynesian

economics?

The main ideas that are associated with rational expectations were developed

by the early 1970s, so the importance of the inflation that occurred was that it

confirmed some of these theoretical ideas. In a way the timing couldn’t have

been better. We were arguing that there was no stable Phillips curve relating

unemployment and inflation. You could go either way on that question given

the available post-war data up to the early 1970s, but by the end of the 1970s

it was all over.

How do you view Keynes as a macroeconomist?

I suppose Keynes, via Hicks, Modigliani and Samuelson, was the founder of

macroeconomics, so one has to view him as a leading figure in the field!

Robert Solow [1986] has described the General Theory as ‘the most influential

work of economics of the twentieth century, and Keynes as the most

important economist’. Yet the impression one gets from your various comments

on Keynes is that you find the General Theory almost incomprehensible.

You certainly don’t seem to regard it in the same light as Solow.

If you look through Solow’s collected writings for evidence of intellectual

indebtedness, evidence that scholars look for – citations and transfer of

ideas – you would find almost no influence of Keynes. So I think such

comments are somewhat disingenuous, unless he is thinking simply of

ideology. Of course Keynes is an extremely important figure in twentiethcentury

history, but I think his major influence was ideological. The

Depression followed soon after the Russian revolution, and there was a lot

of idealism about socialism as a way of resolving economic problems,

especially as the Soviet Union had no depression. Keynes went to great

lengths to disassociate himself from the rest of the economics profession in

the General Theory, making almost no references to mainstream economists

in the entire book, compared to the Treatise on Money which is full of

references to mainstream economists. The message of the General Theory,

in which he emphasized the seriousness of depressions, is that they can be

solved within the context of a liberal democracy without having to resort to

centralized planning. That was a highly important message which certainly

sustained defenders of democracy in countries like yours and mine that

maintained it. It helped to organize the entire world after the war and was

the flag around which liberal democracies rallied. The General Theory was

an unusually important book in that sense. Maybe more important than

economic theory. But that seems to be a different question from that of the

influence of Keynes’s theoretical ideas on the way we practise economics,

which I think is now very slight.

Should students of macroeconomics still read the General Theory?

No.

Had Keynes still been living in 1969, do you think he would have been

awarded the first Nobel Prize in Economics? Would he have received your

vote?

I thought Joan Robinson would get the first one, so my credentials as a Nobel

forecaster have been dubious from the start. But certainly Keynes would have

got one early on. Since I am not a member of the Swedish Academy, I do not

have a vote to cast.

Do you find it puzzling that both Keynes and Marshall started off as mathematicians

and yet both of them in terms of their methodology seemed to

downplay the use of mathematics in economics, not regarding it as an important

way of setting down economic ideas? Why do you think they turned away

from what was becoming a major trend in economic science?

When Marshall was educated, and even when Keynes was educated, England

was a mathematical backwater. If they had been educated in France, Germany

or Russia, working with people like Kolmogorov, Borel or Cantor, they

would have thought differently. Walras, Pareto and Slutzky thought differently.

The people who were giving birth to mathematical economics were

mainly on the continent at that time.

Is it your view that the traditional approach of distinguishing between

short-run and long-run forces in macroeconomics has been misconceived

and counterproductive? Did Keynes send everyone off down the wrong

track?

The short-run–long-run distinction is Marshall’s, not Keynes’s. Indeed, Keynes

is quite explicit in the General Theory that he thinks that permanent stagnation

can result from demand deficiencies. Samuelson’s neoclassical synthesis

reclaimed the long run for neoclassical analysis, at least here in the USA.

Now Samuelson’s students – my whole generation – are trying to get the

short run back, too! It’s hard going, I know, but Samuelson already did the

easy part, and we have to make a living somehow.

The 1930s sent all of us off on the wrong track, starting with Keynes. Even

today, 50 years after the Depression ended, public figures talk about every

little wiggle in the GNP figures as though it were the end of capitalism. If

Keynes were alive today, he would take pride in his role in setting up the

system that permitted the recovery of Europe and the Japanese miracle, and

he would be excited about the prospects for integrating the second and third

worlds into the world economy. I think he would be as impatient with the

overemphasis on short-term fine-tuning as I am.

Monetarism

What were the major factors which contributed to the rise of monetarism

both in academia and policy circles during the 1970s?

It is hard for me to say because I was raised as a monetarist in the 1960s

[laughter].

Well, in the UK circumstances were very different, monetarist ideas came as

much more of a shock to many British economists who were steeped in what

Coddington [1976] has labelled ‘hydraulic Keynesianism’ and Samuelson

[1983] has referred to as the ‘Model T’ version of Keynes’s system.

Our leading Keynesian theorists, people like Tobin and Modigliani, always

had a role for money in their models and the models that I learnt as a graduate

student. Isn’t it true that in England monetarism is used as a much broader

label for the whole Thatcher programme?

The UK media has certainly tended to think of supply-side economics and

monetarism as being the same. Sometimes any belief in the market mechanism

and laissez-faire philosophy is also classified as being a part of

monetarism.

You can take the various elements separately and mix them any way you like.

Do you see Friedman as almost single-handedly having engineering a monetarist

counter-revolution?

Friedman has been an enormous influence. It is hard to say what would have

happened without him.

We know from our own experience as undergraduate students of economics in

the late 1960s in Britain that Friedman was often portrayed as some sort of

strange crank in Chicago.

Well, that was the way people tried to deal with him here too in a way, but not

successfully.

Moving on to Friedman’s 1968a AER article. In 1981 Robert Gordon described

it as probably the most influential article written in macroeconomics

in the previous 20 years, while more recently James Tobin [1995] has gone

much further when he described it as ‘very likely the most influential article

ever published in an economics journal’. What importance do you attach to

that particular article?

It had a huge influence on me. Leonard Rapping and I were doing econometric

work on Phillips curves in those days and that paper hit us right when we

were trying to formulate our ideas. Our models were inconsistent with Friedman’s

reasoning and yet we couldn’t see anything wrong with his reasoning.

It was a real scientific tension of trying to take two incompatible points of

view and see what adjustments you can make to end up in a coherent position.

Edmund Phelps was pursuing similar ideas. Phelps spelled out the

theory a little more clearly than Friedman did and he had an enormous

influence on me as well.

Was this with respect to the need for microfoundations?

Yes. I always think of the proposition that there is no long-run Phillips tradeoff

as the Friedman–Phelps proposition.

What do you feel remains of the monetarist counter-revolution today?

It has gone in so many different directions. Rational expectations macroeconomics

has gone in many different directions. There is real business cycle

theory which assigns no importance to monetary forces. This work has been

hugely influential, on me as well as on others, although I still think of myself

as a monetarist. Then there are those whom Sargent calls fiscalists, people

who think that government deficits are crucial events for the determination of

inflation and whether they are financed by bond issues or money issues is

secondary, or maybe not relevant at all. Then there are old-fashioned monetarists,

which is where I would class myself, with people like Friedman and

Allan Meltzer. One of the things that people are coming to agree on, although

not too many come right out and say it, is that econometrically it seems to be

hard to account for more than a quarter to a third of US real variability in the

post-war period to monetary forces, no matter how you look at the data.

People from very different points of view have come up with that as a kind of

upper bound. I used to think that monetary shocks were 90 per cent of the

story in real variability and I still think they are the central story in the 1930s.

But there is no way to get monetary shocks to account for more than about a

quarter of real variability in the post-war era. At least, no one has found a

way of doing it.

One of the consensus propositions now is that monetary forces cause inflation,

certainly in the long term. That still leaves open the question, if we know

what causes inflation, why do governments insist on increasing the money

supply too rapidly? What are the forces which lie behind monetary expansions?

Well, to be fair, since the 1970s the advanced capitalist countries have what I

would regard as a fantastic record on inflation. Every central bank has shifted

its focus exclusively, or almost exclusively, on price stability. They have done

a great job. I like the idea of going from 3 per cent to 0, but the big thing is

going from 13 per cent to 3. Everyone would agree with that. So the record in

the advanced countries has just been tremendous, although there are a few

outliers in some Latin America countries where inflation is still a persistent

problem. Chile, though, has dealt with inflation forcefully and they have had

a solid record for ten years. Country after country is coming around to deal

with inflation by restricting money growth. But there is still ignorance and

there is always going to be a temptation to generate surprise inflation in order

to default on obligations.

Do you think that Democratic governments will tend to generate in the long

term more inflation than Republican governments because of their greater

announced commitment to employment targets?

Easy money and tight money have been an issue in the USA since the

nineteenth century. I guess it is a pretty good generalization that the Republicans

on the whole have been a tight money party.

According to Alberto Alesina’s [1989] rational partisan model it should

generally be better.

I think of Nixon and Ford as having been fairly inept at monetary policy

(laughter).

Alan Blinder [1986, 1988b, 1992b] has argued that during the 1970s American

Keynesianism absorbed the Friedman–Phelps proposition and that after

allowing for the effects of the OPEC supply shock, a modified Keynesian

model was quite capable of explaining the 1970s macroeconomic phenomena.

Do you think he is wrong?

The direct effect of the OPEC shock was minor in my opinion. I like to be

more explicit about which models are being discussed and what properties

are being boasted about. I don’t know what ‘modified Keynesian model’ Alan

is referring to.

In his view the expectations-augmented Phillips curve had become part of

mainstream macroeconomics by the mid-1970s and by then Keynesianism

had become ‘less crude’, having absorbed some of Friedman’s monetarist

arguments. However, rational expectations models remained controversial.

I don’t know how you would separate those two. But again I don’t know

whether Alan is referring to some body of research, or whether he just means

to say that he thinks he is pretty much on top of things [laughter].