Sunday, October 24, 2010

Substitution and Allometry

Brad DeLong channels Milton Friedman:
Supply and demand curves are never horizontal. They are never vertical. If somebody says that quantities change without changing prices, or that prices change without changing quantities, hold tightly onto your wallet--there is something funny going on.
Yes, this is how economists think, or at least think they think. And there's more than a bit of truth in it. Certainly in the case at hand, DeLong-cum-Friedman is right, and Myron Scholes is wrong: It's neither plausible nor properly thinking like an economist to suppose that if unconventional monetary policy can substantially reduce the quantity of risky financial assets held by the public, the price of such assets -- the relevant interest rates -- will remain unchanged.

That's right. But it's not the only way to be right.

Consider the marginal propensity to consume, that workhorse of practical macroeconomic analysis. It's impossible to talk about the effects of changes in government spending or other demand-side shifts without it. What it says is that, in the short run at least there is a regular relationship between the level of income and the proportion of income spent on current consumption, both across households and over time. Now, of course, you can explain this relationship with a story about relative prices driving substitution between consumption now and consumption later, if you want. But this story is just tacked on, you don't need it to observe the empirical relationship and make predictions accordingly. And more restrictive versions of the substitution story, like the permanent income hypothesis, while they do add some positive content, tend not to survive confrontations with the data. The essential point is that whatever one thinks are the underlying social or psychological processes driving consumption decisions (it's unlikely they can be usefully described as maximizing anything) we reliably observe that when income rises, less of it goes to consumption; when it falls, more of it does.

In biology, a regular relationship between the size of an organism and the proportions of its body is called an allometry. A classic example is the skeleton of mammals, which becomes much more robust and massive relative to the size of the body as the body size increases. Economists are fond of importing concepts from harder sciences, so why not this one? After all, consumption is just one of a number of areas where we rely on stable relations between changes in aggregates and relative changes in their components. There's fixed-coefficient production functions (strictly, an isometry rather than allometry, but we can use the term more broadly than biologists do); the stylized fact, important to (inter alia) classical Marxists, that capital-output ratios rise as output grows; or composition effects in trade, which seem to play such a major role in explaining the collapse in trade volumes during the Great Recession.

This is a way of thinking about economic shifts that doesn't require the price-quantity links that Friedman-DeLong think are the mark of honest economics, even if you can come up with some price-signal based microfoundation for any observed allometry. It's more the spirit of the old institutionalists, or traditional development or industrial-organization economics, which tend to take a natural historian's view of the economy. Of course, not every change in proportion can be explained in terms of regular responses to a change in the aggregate they're part of. Plenty of times, we should still think in terms of prices and substitution; the hard question is exactly when. But it would be an easier question to answer, if we were clearer about the alternatives.

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