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New Classical Macroeconomics

Did you regard your work and that of your associates in developing new

classical macroeconomics as having created a separate school of thought

from monetarism?

I don’t like the collective, me and my associates [laughter]. I am responsible

for my work just as Sargent, Barro and Prescott are responsible for their own

work. When you are in the middle of doing research, it’s a paper-by-paper,

problem-by-problem kind of thing. You don’t say ‘I am a school and here is

what my school is going to do’. These labels get pasted on after the fact; they

don’t play much of a role. My most influential paper on ‘Expectations and the

Neutrality of Money’ [1972a] came out of a conference that Phelps organized

where Rapping and I were invited to talk about our Phillips curve work.

Phelps convinced us that we needed some kind of general equilibrium setting.

Rapping and I were just focusing on labour supply decisions. Phelps

kept on insisting that these labour suppliers are situated in some economy,

and that you have to consider what the whole general equilibrium looks like,

not just what the labour supply decision looks like. That’s what motivated

me. I didn’t think of it as being monetarist but I didn’t think of it as a new

school either.

Do you regard the new classical approach as having resulted in a revolution

in macroeconomic thought?

Sargent once wrote that you can interpret any scientific development as

continuous evolution or discontinuous revolution, at your pleasure. For myself,

I do not have any romantic associations with the term ‘revolution’. To

me, it connotes lying, theft and murder, so I would prefer not to be known as

a revolutionary.

One of the policy implications of new classical analysis is that there will be

no trade-off between inflation and unemployment even in the short run folRobert

E. Lucas Jr 281

lowing announced anticipated monetary expansion. How do you now view

this policy ineffectiveness proposition in the light of the disinflationary experience

of both the UK and the US economies in the early 1980s?

It is nearly impossible to tell what was and was not anticipated in any

particular episode, so the 1980s did not offer a crucial test of anything.

Sargent’s two essays on disinflation in his book Rational Expectations and

Inflation [1993] provide the best analysis of this issue, and a serious discussion

of what is meant by an ‘anticipated’ policy change.

The early 1980s witnessed the demise of your monetary surprise version of

the new classical model. On reflection, how do you view this work and what

do you think remains of that first phase of the new classical revolution?

I discuss this in my Nobel lecture [1996]. My models stress the distinction

between anticipated and unanticipated inflation and I arrived at that distinction

through an information-processing model. But other people have arrived

at the same distinction by thinking about contracts. There are many ways to

motivate that distinction. At the time I guess I thought my way of looking at it

was just a lot better than other people’s ways of looking at it [laughter]. Now

they all seem pretty similar to me. I think this distinction between anticipated

and unanticipated money, and how different their effects are, is the key idea

in post-war macro. I would like to see it embodied in better theoretical

models. I hope it doesn’t get forgotten or lost.

What do you regard as being the most serious criticisms that have been

raised in the literature against new classical equilibrium models?

To me the most interesting debates are not about classes of models but

about particular models. For example, Mehra and Prescott’s [1985] paper

on ‘The Equity Premium’ highlighted the failure of any neoclassical model

that we know about to account for the enormous differential between the

return on equity and the return on bonds. Now they certainly didn’t view

this fact as a failure of neoclassical economics as a body of thought, but on

the other hand it is undeniably a failure of a particular neoclassical model.

I think that is a much more fruitful way to proceed. I think general discussions,

especially by non-economists, of whether the system is in equilibrium

or not are almost entirely nonsense. You can’t look out of this window and

ask whether New Orleans is in equilibrium. What does that mean? [laughter].

Equilibrium is just a property of the way we look at things, not a

property of reality.

Many critics of new classical macroeconomics have argued that there is a

lack of available supporting evidence of strong intertemporal labour substitution

effects. How do you react to this line of criticism?

I’m not at all sympathetic to it. I don’t know what you mean by the ‘available

evidence’. The degree of intertemporal substitution of labour assumed in real

business cycle models is selected to generate employment fluctuations of the

magnitude we observe, which is to say, to be consistent with some of the

‘available evidence’. Economists who have used survey data on individuals

have been unsuccessful in explaining employment fluctuations at the individual

level – we just haven’t learned anything about preferences from their

work. This is a disappointment, but no good purpose is served by reinterpreting

this failure as though it were a successful attempt to estimate something.

Do you consider your 1972 Journal of Economic Theory paper on ‘Expectations

and the Neutrality of Money’ to be your most influential paper?

It seems to be, or maybe the paper on policy evaluation [1976].

How important do you think the ‘Lucas critique’ has been?

I think it has been tremendously important, but it is fading. It used to be that

you could hold that up, like a cross to a vampire, and defeat people simply by

saying ‘Lucas critique’. People have gotten tired of that and I think that is fair

enough. If you want to criticize work effectively you have to get into it and

criticize its details. But I think it is basic that you can’t get economic conclusions

without putting in some economic theories, some economic structure.

Your 1978 paper with Thomas Sargent ‘After Keynesian Macroeconomics’

seemed to be pronouncing the death of Keynesian macroeconomics. Do you

now think that this was perhaps premature given its revival in the form of new

Keynesian economics?

Well, the label ‘Keynesian’ is a flag a lot of people salute, so it’s not going to

lie around unused. Of course Sargent and I were talking about a particular set

of models which we were completely clear about.

You were talking about 1960s-style Keynesian models?

The Wharton model, the Michigan model, the MPS model, models which

existed and were in some sense Keynesian. If a completely different class of

models comes up which people like to call Keynesian, of course our criticisms

can’t apply. You can’t write a paper in 1978 criticizing work done in

1988 [laughter].

That [1978] paper contains a lot of powerful rhetorical statements. Were you

conscious of this at the time of writing?

Yes. We were invited to a conference sponsored by the Boston Fed. In a way

it was like being in the enemy camp and we were trying to make a statement

that we weren’t going to be assimilated.