The Poverty of Macroeconomics --- What the Chemical Revolution Tells Us about Neoclassical Production Function
Abstract: Quantitative macroeconomics is often portrayed as a science—because of its intensive use of high-powered mathematics—with the possible limitation of being unable to conduct controlled experiments. To qualify as a science, however, theories in that discipline must meet a minimum number of criteria: (i) It has explanatory power to explain phenomena; (ii) it has predictive power to yield quantifiable and falsifiable statements about new phenomenon; and (iii) it has operational power to change the world. A scientific theory consists of axioms and working hypotheses that facilitate the derivation of contestable statements from the axioms.2 Hence, simply laying out a list of contradictions between a theory’s implications and the data is often insufficient to disqualify a theory as science; it may have just challenged its working hypotheses, not its axioms. But, challenging a theory’s working hypotheses is a crucial step to improve or falsify a theory. This is why Isaac Newton spent so much effort in his Principia Mathematica to deal with the law of motion under air friction. This article discusses one of the working hypotheses of the Arrow-Debreu paradigm and its dynamic stochastic general equilibrium reincarnation in quantitative macroeconomics—the supply curve and its embodiment in the neoclassical production function. The supply curve is a much stronger pillar than the demand curve in holding up the Arrow-Debreu paradigm, but we argue in this article that the neoclassical production function embodying the supply curve is full of cracks. More specifically, we show that the neoclassical production function is not quantifiable as a working hypothesis to support the Arrow-Debreu DSGE model, unlike the chemical reaction equations based on Lavoisier’s oxygen theory of combustion. The neoclassical production function relies on the unobservable and unmeasurable Solow residual to explain the quantity of output produced at the firm, industry, or national level, and the hypothetical factors of production (capital and labor) are much like “fire, air, water, and earth” in the ancient Greek theory of the universe. Because the working hypotheses of quantitative macroeconomics are not themselves quantifiable, the neoclassical theory is not yet a science. And this explains the lack of power for DSGE models to predict the 2008 Financial Crisis and the inability of economic theory to change the world by engineering or recreating economic prosperity in developing countries.
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Provider: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
Part of Series: Working Papers
Publication Date: 2021-02