Edmund S. Phelps

International Affairs, Suite 1126

Phone: 212-854-2060
Dept. Phone: 212-854-3680
Fax: 212-854-3735

Email: [email protected]

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    Edmund Phelps, the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Economics, is Director of the Center on Capitalism and Society at Columbia University. Born in 1933, he spent his childhood in Chicago and, from age six, grew up in Hastings-on Hudson, N.Y. He attended public schools, earned his B.A. from Amherst (1955) and got his Ph.D. at Yale (1959). After a stint at RAND, he held positions at Yale and its Cowles Foundation (1960 - 1966), a professorship at Penn and finally at Columbia in 1971. He has written books on growth, unemployment theory, recessions, stagnation, inclusion, rewarding work, dynamism, indigenous innovation and the good economy.

     His work can be seen as a lifelong project to put “people as we know them” into economic theory. In the mid-‘60s to the early ‘80s, beginning with the “Phelps volume,” Microeconomic Foundations of Employment and Inflation Theory (1970), he pointed out that workers, customers and companies must make many decisions without full or current information; and they improvise by forming expectations to fill in for the missing information. In that framework, he studied wage-setting, mark-up rules, slow recoveries and over-shooting. This served to underpin Keynesian tenet that say a cut in the money supply will not merely cause prices and wages to drop with no prolonged effect on employment.

     From the mid-‘80s to the late ‘90s, he put aside the short-termism and monetarism of MIT and Chicago to develop a “structuralist” macroeconomics. Contrary to what Keynesian extremists see as unending and unexplained deficiency of “demand,” he sees employment heading to its “natural” level and seeks to explain the effects of structural forces on it.  His book Structural Slumps (1994) and later papers with Hian Teck Hoon and Gylfi Zoega find an economy’s natural employment level is contracted by increases in household wealth, in overseas interest rates and by currency weakness.  Thus, the big job losses in the US, UK and France result from the pile-up of wealth and puny investment, both stemming from the slowdown of productivity growth.

  Now he has worked to put economics on a new foundation. Powerful innovation over more than a century alters the nature of the advanced economies: Having higher income or wealth matters less. As his book Rewarding Work (1997) begins to argue, what matters more are non-material rewards of work: being engaged in projects, the delight of succeeding at something and the experience of flourishing on an unfolding voyage. His book Mass Flourishing (2013) remarks that cavemen had the ability to imagine new things and the zeal to create them. But a culture liberating and inspiring the dynamism is necessary to ignite a “passion for the new.”

Professor Phelps in
      GermanyPhelps’s work is best known for introducing in the late ’60s an expectations-based microeconomics into the theory of employment determination and price-wage dynamics. Keynes’s great work of the ’30s had left it unexplained why involuntary unemployment is observed even in the best of times and why a drop of aggregate “effective demand” causes a rise of unemployment – why not a prompt fall of money wages and prices by just enough to forestall a fall of employment? The challenge was to resolve these issues while continuing to posit the elementary rationality that economics traditionally ascribed to workers, consumers and firms.

In Phelps’s “micro-macro” models, attaining equilibrium in the markets – meaning participants’ expectations consistent with their actions – does not generally eliminate unemployment, not even involuntary unemployment. In a 1968 paper, the economy's firms face a management problem, costly employee turnover, and a firm's wage policy aims to balance payroll cost against turnover cost. On an equilibrium path, the going wage at each point is generally an "incentive wage," hence a wage that is more than enough to hire employees; but that results in “job rationing" and thus involuntary unemployment throughout. In a 1969 paper, Phelps sketched an economy of widely separated "islands" in which workers have to decide whether to accept the local market wage or to move on. Even in an equilibrium scenario, workers on an island with an appreciably inferior wage will get on the boat to try another island, suffering voluntary  unemployment during their search.

The main discovery from these models was the potential for disequilibrium and its effects on economic activity. Errors in wage or price expectations would disturb the volume of unemployment. If, in the labor turnover model, each firm deciding its next wage, say, underestimates the wage being set at the other firms, i.e., the actual wage exceeds the expected wage, the error reduces the firms’ expected turnover and hence their expected costs, thus encouraging them to pay less and hire more, which drives down unemployment. If, in the islands model, the average wage exceeds what workers expect it is, the underestimate prompts some workers to accept a job rather than go on searching, so, again, unemployment drops. In the same spirit, a 1967 paper supposed that an underestimate by each firm of the price being set by the others would encourage increases in output supply and labor demand, raising employment; a 1970 paper introducing the “customer market,” coauthored with Sidney Winter, supplied a basis for this idea. From all this, an answer to the puzzle of Keynes emerged: An unperceived rise in “effective demand,” in driving up the average money wage and the price level, would reduce unemployment if the average firm (or island) did not know or imagine that the general price and wage level had increased by as much as its own – i.e., if the actual price or wage inflation exceeded the expected. A persistent over-estimation of upcoming money wages and prices could cause a protracted depression. The volume deriving from a conference Phelps organized at Penn, Microeconomic Foundations of Employment and Inflation Theory (Norton, 1970), was the first wave in this new macroeconomics. Applications to demand management were made in the 1967 paper and in his monograph Inflation Policy and Unemployment Theory (Norton, 1972).

These prototype micro-macro models contained another departure from convention. The models usually postulated that the equilibrium path of the unemployment rate depended only on non-monetary considerations, hence not upon the expected or the actual inflation rate. This supposed “neutrality” of money and inflation (dubbed the
natural rate hypothesis by Milton Friedman in his parallel work on disequilibrium labor supply) nicely simplified the analysis of shocks and most econometricians found it descriptive enough in normal cases. The striking implication of this postulate was that, once expectations adjust, the inflation rate that was targeted by the central bank would have no effect on the subsequent path of unemployment rate and hence no effect on the medium-run steady-state level to which any equilibrium path (with its distinct starting point) would lead. Thus, raising the inflation rate target might advance an employment recovery but not improve the end result. This logically inessential but apparently realistic feature of the new models challenged the Keynesian tenet, embodied in the famous Phillips curve, that  monetary or fiscal stimulus could achieve a lower unemployment rate by choosing a higher inflation rate.

Phelps spent much of the ‘70s replying to a further development from other quarters: to theoretical demonstrations that a departure from the current equilibrium path would be merely momentary if every economic actor had so-called rational expectations. (When all the “news” arrives at month’s end, prices and wages would jump precisely to regain equilibrium.) In frequently collaborative research at Columbia in the 1970s he argued that if most wage and price setting is nonsynchronous, such a deviation would take time to die out even if everyone had "rational" expectations. See, for example, a 1977 paper with John Taylor. This work helped start what came to be known as New Keynesian macroeconomics. In the early 1980s Phelps argued that if participants believe their preferred model of sales, employment and prices is not shared by all participants, the deviation might be protracted. Various consequences of this pluralism of beliefs, actual or feared, are analyzed in his paper and other papers in the conference volume he edited with Roman Frydman, Individual Forecasting and Aggregate Outcomes (Cambridge, 1983).

Professor Phelps
        and Mrs. PhelpsWhile these views went on winning support among macroeconomics experts, the last two decades were testing times. The ‘80s witnessed a powerful slump in Europe with no evidence of unexpected disinflation or deflation; the latter half of the ‘90s brought a strong boom to the U.S. economy and northern Europe without evidence of unexpected inflation—all contrary to the simple models. In response, Phelps began in the late ‘80s to develop a theory of the equilibrium path itself – a theory of the determinants of the natural unemployment rate. The models built and their first statistical test were set forth in Structural Slumps: The Modern Equilibrium Theory of Unemployment, Interest and Assets (Harvard, 1994). Subsequent papers in this project include ‘Growth, wealth and the natural rate: is Europe’s jobs crisis a growth crisis?’ ‘The rise and downward trend of the natural rate,’ ‘Natural rate theory and OECD unemployment,’ and ‘Lessons in natural-rate dynamics.

At the level of historical understanding, this theoretical development served to underpin hypotheses linking the ‘80s slump to a worldwide rise of real interest rates, the sharp transition to more moderate productivity growth in the European economies, and the growth of the welfare state to huge proportions, especially on the European continent. At a more general level, this work pointed to the crucial role for employment determination played by the values (also known as shadow prices) that firms place on the various sorts of business assets with which they operate: the employee with the needed firm-specific preparation, the customer, and nonhuman tangibles such as industrial plant and office facilities. This feature of the theory suggested that the prices of shares traded on organized stock exchanges might be serviceable as observable proxies for the mostly unobservable asset values, which opened up new statistical tests of the theory. See 'Behind this structural boom: the role of asset valuations,' and 'Roots of the recent recoveries: labor reforms or private-sector forces?’ This equilibrium theory of endogenous structural unemployment turned out to supply an explanation of the inflationless booms in the late ‘90s. In their thinking about the long wave of business expansions in the late 19th century, the German School under Spiethof and Cassel suggested that prospects of new industries or new methods requiring further capital, and this interpretation can be translated into an unexpected jump in the values that firms, looking to the new opportunities, place on one or more business assets. (An April 2000 Wall Street Journal essay provides an introduction to this analysis.)

Phelps’s interest in structural booms alongside his interest, dating from the early ‘90s, in the questions raised by the professed desire of some eastern European countries to build predominantly capitalist economies have led to mounting research on his part into the functioning and performance of capitalist institutions. The first step, following some years surveying the interwar literature on theory, was to confirm, in a 1996 paper (forthcoming) with Darius Palia, that indeed countries with more of the economy’s industry under private ownership achieve faster productivity growth, other things equal. The next step was to ask whether the economies that boomed in the late ‘90s (the U.S., Sweden, Finland, Ireland, and so forth) had the sort of institutions and resources that entrepreneurs under capitalism require to a greater extent than the countries that did not boom (Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain and so forth); the results here were published in a 2001 paper with Gylfi Zoega. (An August 2000 Financial Times essay presents an elementary exposition.) Phelps and Zoega are now embarking on a broader assessment of the effects of the institutions of capitalism, with special attention to productivity level and job satisfaction.

Alongside his recent research on capitalism Phelps has also done research on the causes and cures of joblessness and low wages among disadvantaged workers. His recent book for the general public Rewarding Work (Harvard, 1997) combines these interests. Subsequent papers on these themes include 'A strategy for employment and growth: the failure of statism, welfarism, and free markets,' an OECD conference paper titled 'The importance of inclusion and the power of job subsidies to increase it,’ and a critique of proposals for stakeholder grants and universal income benefits titled ‘Subsidize wages.’

Phelps recently served as Senior Advisor to the project Italy in Europe at the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Italy, for three years until May 2000. He was a member of the International Panel on Economic Policy of the OFCE in Paris in the 1990s, and co-organizer of the annual Villa Mondragone seminar of the University of Rome 'Tor Vergata' from 1990 to 2000. He was a charter member of the Economic Advisory council of the EBRD and wrote most of the Annual Economic Outlook, which appeared in September 1993. He has been a consultant at the U.S. Treasury Department, U.S. Senate Finance Committee, and Federal Reserve Board.

In 2001 Phelps founded with Roman Frydman the Center on Capitalism & Society at Columbia (now a unit of Arts and Sciences) to promote and conduct research on capitalism.

Among his other books are Fiscal Neutrality toward Economic Growth (McGraw-Hill, 1965) and Golden Rules of Economic Growth (Norton, 1966), his selected papers in Studies in Macroeconomic Theory (Academic Press, 1980), the reader Economic Justice (Penguin, 1974), a conference volume Altruism, Morality and Economic Theory (Basic Books, 1975), his textbook Political Economy (Norton, 1985), the monograph with J.P. Fitoussi, The Slump in Europe (Blackwell, 1988), and his Arne Ryde lectures Seven Schools of Macroeconomic Thought (Oxford, 1990).

Phelps was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (USA) in 1981, was made a Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association in 2000, and was elected to be a full member of the Russian Academy of Science in December of 2011. (Citation.) He is also a former vice-president of the Association, a fellow of the Econometric Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the New York Academy of Sciences. He was a Guggenheim fellow in 1978, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavior Science in 1969-70 and visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation in 1993-94. He holds a Ph.D. from Yale University (1959). In 1985 he was awarded an honorary degree from his alma mater, Amherst College. In June 2001 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Mannheim and from the University of Rome “Tor Vergata,” in October 2003 from Universidade Nova Lisboa, in July 2004 from University of Paris Dauphine and in October 2004 from the University of Iceland. He was made an honorary professor at the Renmin University, Beijing, in May 2004. He also holds honorary doctorates from the Institut d'Etudes des Sciences Politiques de Paris (2006), the Universidad de Buenos Aires (2007), Tsinghua University (2007), and the Université libre de Bruxelles (2010).  An international Festschrift in
his honor was held at Columbia University in October 2001 and the 600 page conference volume was published by Princeton University Press in 2003 (Knowledge, Information and Expectations in Modern Economics P. Aghion, R. Frydman, J.E. Stiglitz and M. Woodford, eds.)

Business Website: edmundphelps.com
The Center on Capitalism and Society: www.capitalism.columbia.edu

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  • Interview with Edmund S. Phelps by Howard Vane and Chris Mulhearn (2009)
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  • Edmund Phelps: AEA Luncheon Speech (2008) by James J. Heckman
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  • "Edmund Phelps and Modern Macroeconomics" by Robert W. Dimand (2008)
  • "Ned Phelps' Contributions as Viewed from Today through My Personal Filter by Robert J. Gordon
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