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Orhan Torul

Associate Professor of Economics at Boğaziçi University

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Thomas Sargent is an American economist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2011 (along with Christopher Sims). He is known for his work on macroeconomic modeling and rational expectations theory. Some of Sargent’s key contributions include:

  • Developing dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) models to analyze macroeconomic policies and phenomena. These models incorporate microfoundations and assumptions of rational expectations.
  • Pioneering the use of rational expectations in macroeconomic models. This assumes economic agents make decisions based on all available information and past experiences. It challenged traditional Keynesian models.
  • Providing mathematical and statistical frameworks to test competing macroeconomic theories and models. This improved empirical rigor in macroeconomics.
  • Analyzing monetary policy and the connections between economic policy and macro outcomes through quantitative models. His work demonstrated the importance of focusing on policy rules rather than discretion.
  • Advancing the “policy irrelevance proposition” which states macroeconomic policies cannot systematically manage aggregate demand due to rational expectations offsetting official actions.
  • Developing the “fiscal theory of the price level” which shows fiscal policy can determine the price level given certain conditions. This challenged traditional monetary policy dominance theories.

In his graduation speech to Berkeley undergraduates in 2007, he discusses the basic principles and properties of economics as follows:

“Economics is organized common sense. Here is a short list of valuable lessons that our beautiful subject teaches:

  1. Many things that are desirable are not feasible.
  2. Individuals and communities face trade-offs.
  3. Other people have more information about their abilities, their efforts, and their preferences than you do.
  4. Everyone responds to incentives, including people you want to help. That is why social safety nets don’t always end up working as intended.
  5. There are tradeoffs between equality and efficiency.
  6. In an equilibrium of a game or an economy, people are satisfied with their choices. That is why it is difficult for well meaning outsiders to change things for better or worse.
  7. In the future, you too will respond to incentives. That is why there are some promises that you’d like to make but can’t. No one will believe those promises because they know that later it will not be in your interest to deliver. The lesson here is this: before you make a promise, think about whether you will want to keep it if and when your circumstances change. This is how you earn a reputation.
  8. Governments and voters respond to incentives too. That is why governments sometimes default on loans and other promises that they have made.
  9. It is feasible for one generation to shift costs to subsequent ones. That is what national government debts and the U.S. social security system do (but not the social security system of Singapore).
  10. When a government spends, its citizens eventually pay, either today or tomorrow, either through explicit taxes or implicit ones like inflation.
  11. Most people want other people to pay for public goods and government transfers (especially transfers to themselves).
  12. Because market prices aggregate traders’ information, it is difficult to forecast stock prices and interest rates and exchange rates.

As a pioneer in shaping modern macroeconomics through rational expectations theories, DSGE modeling, and empirically testing macroeconomic policies and assumptions, Tom Sargent’s contributions in quantitative approach continues increasing rigor to the field of economics. For his and his team’s latest legacy, explore the phenomenal QuantEcon project.