What is taught in today’s graduate programs as macroeconomics is entirely useless for the kinds of questions we are interested in.
By J.W. Mason – Jón Steinsson wrote up some thoughts for this panel about the current state of macroeconomics. He begins:
There is a narrative within our field that macroeconomics has lost its way. While I have some sympathy with this narrative, I think it is a better description of the field 10 years ago than of the field today. Today, macroeconomics is in the process of regaining its footing. Because of this, in my view, the state of macroeconomics is actually better than it has been for quite some time.
I can’t help but be reminded of Olivier Blanchard’s 2008 article on the state of macroeconomics, which opened with a flat assertion that “the state of macro is good.” I am not convinced today’s positive assessment is going to hold up better than that one.
Where I do agree with Jón is that empirical work in macro is in better shape than theory. But I think theory is in much worse shape than he thinks. The problem is not some particular assumptions. It is the fundamental approach.
We need to be brutally honest: What is taught in today’s graduate programs as macroeconomics is entirely useless for the kinds of questions we are interested in.
I have in front of me the macro comprehensive exam from a well-regarded mainstream economics PhD program. The comp starts with the familiar Euler equation with a representative agent maximizing their utility from consumption over an infinite future. Then we introduce various complications — instead of a single good we have a final and intermediate good, we allow firms to have some market power, we introduce random variation in the production technology or markup. The problem at each stage is to find what is the optimal path chosen by the representative household under the new set of constraints.
This is what macroeconomics education looks like in 2021. I submit that it provides no preparation whatsoever for thinking about the substantive questions we are interested in. It’s not that this or that assumption is unrealistic. It is that there is no point of contact between the world of these models and the real economies that we live in. more>