Noah Smith on the new macro wars

The most interesting thing about the new Macro Wars is that academic research is almost a total non-factor. In 2011 we were arguing about the Zero Lower Bound, DSGE models versus reduced-form models, etc. Now, though academics are involved in the debates, you rarely see an actual paper invoked. And when it is, it’s nearly always an empirical paper rather than a theory paper.

Why? If academics themselves weren’t involved in the debates, you could say that OK, maybe these people are just ignorant of the literature. But academics are involved, and they do know the literature; they’re just not invoking it much. Also, it’s not that Twitter econ debates are lightweight or short on references — the minimum wage debate, for example, cites papers constantly.

You can come up with various hypotheses for this, but it seems fairly clear to me that the reason is that everyone quietly stopped believing in the usefulness of academic macro theory. Macro profs are still out there doing their jobs, writing theory papers, and getting paid handsomely for it — in fact, I’d argue that with folks like Emi Nakamura, Jon Steinsson, Yuriy Gorodnichenko, and Ivan Werning on the job, the field of macro theory is chock full of top talent. And those are good people who take their jobs seriously and aren’t out to push political narratives.

But the problem is that macro theory is just really, really hard.

His whole Substack post is very good, though I give the entire matter a different interpretation.  I do not view contemporary macroeconomics as wonderfully predictive, but it does put constraints on what you can advocate or for that matter on what you can predict.  I saw the Republicans go down this path some time ago, and now the Democrats are following them — it ain’t pretty.  I think what we are seeing now is that (some, not all) Democratic economists want Democrats to be popular, and to win, and so they will rearrange macroeconomic thinking accordingly.  David Henderson, in a recent post, put the point well:

Notice what even Krugman admits. First, that the aid to state and local governments is too much, even by his standards. Second, the checks to people who hadn’t suffered much, which are a huge part of the package, are the “least-justifiable piece in terms of standard economics.” And what’s Krugman’s justification for those payments? That they are “by far the most popular” and, for that reason, we can’t “entirely disregard that.”

On the actual analytics of this debate, Summers has been a clear winner, and that simply hasn’t mattered much at all.  See also this excellent comment by Karl Smith:

Bidenism is hitting at exactly the right time politically. It’s not pushing the American people but meeting them where they are. It is quite frankly the coherent manifestation of MAGAism in the same way that Reaganism was a coherent manifestation of Carter-era deregulation



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