Some comments on this recent post about Schools of Thought macro have raised interesting issues which I had not thought enough about, and which I want to come back to later if I can. Here I want to put forward an idea suggested by this from Jonathan Portes. We wrote these posts simultaneously and independently, and although I think Jonathan’s is consistent and complementary with what I had written, rereading it made me think a bit more about what I was really annoyed about.
Jonathan describes his puzzlement at being labelled a Keynesian when he thought he was just following mainstream macroeconomic theory and evidence. It discusses how misleading it can be to associate views about how the economy works with policy positions which may be rather specific in time, place and circumstance. Now I think these types of criticism, which I made in my original post, apply to at least some other schools of thought in macro. For example the label monetarist has many layers of meaning, from the very specific and policy related (money supply targeting) to the much more general and theoretical (money matters). These layers may be related, but they do not have to be.
Having said that, I think it is worth saying a bit more about the use of the specific term Keynesian, which both our posts focused on. It seems to me slightly unusual when used to denote a school of thought today, because it appears to be invoked more by those who disagree with it than those who agree. Jonathan’s post gave some clear examples of this. To caricature: we do not need to think too much about fiscal stimulus, because it’s a Keynesian policy. It is true that this kind of statement is more often made by politicians, journalists or bloggers than academics, but academics are not blameless here, and others often take their cue from them.
The source for dismissive statements of this kind probably goes back to the 1980s. At the academic level, it reflects the defeat of the Keynesians at the hands of New Classical economists, without noting that things have moved on rather a lot since then. At the level of policy in the UK, it may also reflect a perception on the right of past battles won.
In contrast, those economists who use (New) Keynesian theory generally think they are just applying standard macroeconomic analysis. They are using the synthesis (e.g. the New Neoclassical Synthesis of Goodfriend and King) that I talked about in that earlier post. They do not think of themselves as members of a school of thought – they thought they were part of the mainstream.
Is that just arrogance on their part? There are two reasons for thinking it is not. First, it is this synthesis model that is used by pretty well every central bank as the main tool for doing monetary policy. That does not make it right, but it does give it a pretty good claim to being mainstream macro. After all, it is mainly in central banks where macroeconomics is applied to the real world. Second, as the evidence that prices are sticky seems overwhelming (as Paul Krugman points out, the evidence from real exchange movements is clear), and it follows almost automatically that aggregate demand then matters, it is difficult to see how Keynesian analysis can either be controversial or ignored. (Furthermore, even if prices are pretty flexible, demand will still be important in determining output after a severe negative demand shock that takes us to the zero lower bound, as I argued here.)
So I want to abolish the Keynesian school. Keynesian analysis should be part of the mainstream, and does not need to be embodied in a school of thought. However, for those that like schools of thought, I will replace it with a new one: the anti-Keynesian school of thought. It covers all those who attempt to dismiss Keynesian ideas like fiscal stimulus at the zero bound, or countercyclical fiscal policy in a monetary union, not through reasoned analysis, but by just labelling it Keynesian.