I returned from the University of Missouri Kansas City Post-Keynesian Conference, and I have been reflecting on the state of the field. From my external vantage point, it has the defects that are inherent in the institutions in modern academia, but it does have the advantages over the mainstream. The trick is being able to get an understanding of the theory from outside. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) remains attractive as the project was structured in a fashion to be useful for non-academics.
Academic Conferences Are Academic ConferencesI should note that I did what I expected to do: talk with various academics I had previously only had contact with over the internet. That was very useful, and appreciated.
Like any other academic conference, the problem for an outsider is that one is dumped in amongst a bunch of trees, and trying to discern the forest is difficult. This is partially the result of the dysfunction of modern academia. Administrators have seized upon the bright idea of increasing the quantity of research produced, on the theory that research is akin to piecework on the assembly line. The predictable result is that a smaller number of ideas is spread across a greater number of papers. The situation was bad in the mid-1990s when I walked away from academia, and has accelerated since then. Modern management techniques have managed to cripple an institutional framework that has functioned for centuries, which is a fairly impressive achievement.
One of the ironies of the conference was that one of the big sources of excitement was the prospect of the release of Piero Sraffa's papers as an electronic archive. Piero Sraffa was a somewhat unusual figure, and his academic output (other than his lectures) was two (?) relatively slim books. (The one usually cited is Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities: Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory.) Modern academics still study the deliberately cryptic theory of an academic who would never have come close to keeping an academic job at present given, his slow rate of output.
The upshot is that an outsider has to use survey articles or textbooks in order to judge the state of the academic art. Going to a conference is a means to gain access to the researchers, but much of the research itself that is presented tends to be cryptic and incremental. (There were some survey discussions, which were helpful.)
No Mathematics - Bah!The belief that "post-Keynesians" do not do mathematics was proven wrong by the conference. I sat through a number of presentations that consisted of a wave of statistical tests, much like any other economics conference. (Even post-Keynesians use R.) On the theory side, there were presentations of Stock-Flow Consistent models. They might appear less "mathy" than DSGE macro, but I prefer mathematical models where the actual math is solved correctly.
Fragmentation of TheoryThe difficulty of discussing post-Keynesianism is the fracturing of theories within the field. (The fact that one can distinguish between "post Keynesianism," "post-Keynesianism," and "Post-Keynesianism" is a bit of clue.) Academic politics were on display throughout the conference.
As an ex-academic, I do find academic politics to be an excellent form of entertainment. Furthermore, the private sector is not any better at creating internal consensus on economic views, as anyone who was involved in creating a "house view" for market economics can attest.
Unfortunately, it makes it difficult to answer simple questions such as: what do post-Keynesians believe to be true about the economy? ( It is easy to find where they disagree with the mainstream; my writings often fall into that trap as well.)
Various disagreements have led to lack of a consensus undergraduate text for post-Keynesian economic (at the level of a first economics course). There are certainly advanced texts; such as the excellent Post-Keynesian Economics: New Foundations by Marc Lavoie. (His argument is that we can extract a relatively coherent school of thought out of the wider post-Keynesian theory.) However, that text is aimed at graduate students, and you would already have to have a good idea of why you are interested in post-Keynesian theory before attempting to read it.
This is not necessarily problematic for academia. However, it makes life difficult for those of us outside academia who want to understand how the economy works. I was initially planning on writing a book with a title like "Business Cycles From The Post-Keynesian Perspective," but I realise it would have to be instead something like "Post-Keynesian Perspectives On The Business Cycle." And I would have to make some fairly arbitrary decisions on what to cover. It would not be a surprise if the factions that I ignored would be unhappy with my summary.
Modern Monetary Theory: A Path ForwardSince the conference was at UKMC, it had a Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) bent. Two of the founders of MMT gave major presentations -- Bill Mitchell, and Randall Wray. (Link to Wray speech.) However, the role of Warren Mosler -- another one of the founders -- came up a lot in conversation. From the perspective of an outsider, the organisational role of Mosler seems to be extremely important. The idea of packaging theory so that it would be targeted at non-academics may have appeared obvious to someone from the private sector, but certainly was not a strategy developed by broad post-Keynesianism. (Various post-Keynesians have written various books aimed at non-academics, such as Hyman Minsky, but the books have largely acted as one-offs. It was not obvious how an interested reader could continue further within the same school.)
The creation of a new school of thought within post-Keynesian economics is not a big deal. What set MMT apart was the organisational focus -- make the theory accessible to non-academics. In order to that, they had to go through the existing theory and see what was compatible with the MMT world view, and what was not.
The full version of the MMT textbook by Wray and Mitchell has been sent to the publishers, and is expected to appear in early in 2017. (An earlier version has been published; I will hold off reviewing the book until the full version comes out.) The existence of this textbook will also help cement the ease of entry advantage of MMT.
Absent a similar repackaging effort by other post-Keynesians, MMT is going to be the easiest entry point for post-Keynesian economics. (For the mathematically inclined, the SFC model literature would be an alternative.) That is, the easy way to approach macro is start off with MMT, and then look at various side topics. The significance of those side topics are only going to be understood only after one gets a broad understanding of the field.
Concluding RemarksMost people outside of academia who are interested in economics follow what is usually called "market macro," a grab bag of theoretical ideas, supported by basic econometrics. (My writings largely fall under that category as well.) However, we need to be able to decide what ideas to put into that bag of analytical tricks, and for that we need a coherent theoretical view. Given that mainstream macro has retreated into a shell of non-falsifiability, some variant of post-Keynesian economics is one of the few viable alternatives.
(c) Brian Romanchuk 2016