From the introduction to Ricardo Caballero’s paper, “Macroeconomics after the Crisis: Time to Deal with the Pretense-of-Knowledge Syndrome” (pdf):
What does concern me of my discipline, however, is that its current core — by which I mainly mean the so-called dynamic stochastic general equilibrium approach — has become so mesmerized with its own internal logic that it has begun to confuse the precision it has achieved about its own world with the precision that it has about the real one. This is dangerous for both methodological and policy reasons. On the methodology front, macroeconomic research has been in “fine-tuning” mode within the local-maximum of the dynamic stochastic general equilibrium world, when we should be in “broad-exploration” mode. We are too far from absolute truth to be so specialized and to make the kind of confident quantitative claims that often emerge from the core. On the policy front, this confused precision creates the illusion that a minor adjustment in the standard policy framework will prevent future crises, and by doing so it leaves us overly exposed to the new and unexpected.
To be fair to our field, an enormous amount of work at the intersection of macroeconomics and corporate finance has been chasing many of the issues that played a central role during the current crisis, including liquidity evaporation, collateral shortages, bubbles, crises, panics, fire sales, risk-shifting, contagion, and the like.1 However, much of this literature belongs to the periphery of macroeconomics rather than to its core. Is the solution then to replace the current core for the periphery? I am tempted—but I think this would address only some of our problems. The dynamic stochastic general equilibrium strategy is so attractive, and even plain addictive, because it allows one to generate impulse responses that can be fully described in terms of seemingly scientific statements. The model is an irresistible snake-charmer. In contrast, the periphery is not nearly as ambitious, and it provides mostly qualitative insights. So we are left with the tension between a type of answer to which we aspire but that has limited connection with reality (the core) and more sensible but incomplete answers (the periphery).
This distinction between core and periphery is not a matter of freshwater versus saltwater economics. Both the real business cycle approach and its New Keynesian counterpart belong to the core. Moreover, there was a time when Keynesian economics was more like the current core, in the sense of trying to build quantitative aggregative models starting from micro-founded consumption functions and the like. At that time, it was the “rational-expectations” representatives that were in the insight-building mode, identifying key concepts for macroeconomic policy such as time-inconsistency and endogenous expectations, without any pretense of being realistic in all dimensions of modeling in order to obtain quantitative answers.
Moreover, this tension is not new to macroeconomics or even to economics more broadly. In his Nobel-prize acceptance lecture, Hayek writes: “Of course, compared with the precise predictions we have learnt to expect in the physical sciences, this sort of mere pattern predictions is a second best with which one does not like to have to be content. Yet the danger of which I want to warn is precisely the belief that in order to have a claim to be accepted as scientific it is necessary to achieve more. This way lies charlatanism and worse. To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the process of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm” (von Hayek, 1974).
One reading of Hayek’s comment is as a reminder of the dangers of presuming a precision and degree of knowledge we do not have. I suspect that if Hayek was confronted with the limited choice between the core or the periphery of macroeconomics, his vote today would be cast for the periphery. This is the starting point of the theme I will develop in the first part of the paper. There I will discuss the distinction between the core and the periphery of macroeconomics in greater detail, as well as the futile nature of the integrationist movement—that is, the process of gradually bringing the insights of the periphery into the dynamic stochastic general equilibrium structure.
However, when we consider Hayek’s comment, we find a silver lining: a contemporary version of his paragraph, which would involve a discussion of the core and periphery, would confront one modeling approach against other modeling approaches, not models against narrative. This is good news. There is no doubt that the formalization of macroeconomics over recent decades has increased its potential. We just need to be careful to not let this formalization gain its own life and distract us from the ultimate goal, which is to understand the mechanisms that drive the real economy. This progress also offers hope that we may find ways to explore formally and explicitly the limits of our and economic agents’ knowledge. This is the second theme I develop in this paper. The idea is to place at the center of the analysis the fact that the complexity of macroeconomic interactions limits the knowledge we can ever attain. In thinking about analytical tools and macroeconomic policies, we should seek those that are robust to the enormous uncertainty to which we are confined, and we should consider what this complexity does to the actions and reactions of the economic agents whose behavior we are supposed to be capturing.