An interview of William A. Barnett

William (Bill) Barnett is an eminent econometrician and macroeconomist. He has made fundamental contributions to the applied neoclassical economic theory of consumer and producer behavior and pioneered a scientific approach to economics, based on state-of-the-art micro- and macro-econometrics.

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Bill Barnett has been highly influential in shaping academic research on monetary and financial aggregation, using index number and aggregation theory. He is the inventor of the Divisia monetary aggregates and founder of the modern field of aggregation-theoretic monetary aggregation. Over the years, he has argued that the official simple-sum monetary aggregates, produced by the Federal Reserve and other central banks around the world, are inconsistent with neoclassical microeconomic and aggregation theory. The resulting internal inconsistency of the monetary aggregates with the neoclassical models within which the aggregates are used has become known as the “Barnett critique”.

His work on monetary aggregation is more timely today than ever, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, with the mainstream (interest-rate- based) approach to monetary policy being ineffective at the zero lower bound. His book, Getting It Wrong: How Faulty Monetary Statistics Undermine the Fed, the Financial System, and the Economy, published by MIT Press, won the American Publisher’s Award for Professional and Scholarly Excellence for the best book published in the field of economics during 2012.

Bill Barnett has also made fundamental contributions to the associated fields of demand-system and flexible-functional-form modeling. Early in his career, he proved that Theil and Barten’s Rotterdam model could be aggregated over consumers under remarkably weak assumptions, with the addition of a remainder term having properties he explored. He also derived and applied that model’s test for blockwise weak separability, which is the necessary condition for quantity aggregation. Moreover, he was the first to prove the asymptotic normality and efficiency properties of the maximum likelihood estimator for the relevant class of models, consisting of closed form nonlinear systems of equations.

To address issues relating to the economic properties of flexible functional forms derived from second-order Taylor series approximations, Barnett proposed the use of the second-order Laurent series and identified a parsimonious special case, called minflex Laurent. The minflex special case retains the flexibility property. He proved that the second-order Laurent series and its minflex parsimonious special case have better economic properties, over a very large region, than the second order Taylor series flexible functional forms. Also, motivated by Ron Gallant’s insightful analysis of asymptotic global flexibility using seminonparametric estimation converging globally to unknown functions, Barnett invented the Asymptotically Ideal Model (AIM), based on the Müntz-Szatz series expansion.

Bill Barnett has also shown the way for research beyond the mainstream’s state of the art. His work on numerical solutions for bifurcation boundaries raises questions about robustness of dynamical macroeconometric inferences. In a series of journal articles, he has found Hopf, transcritical, and singularity bifurcation boundaries crossing the parameter estimates’ confidence regions. He has found this phenomenon in all classes of dynamical models in widespread use in macroeconometrics. His conclusion is that dynamical policy inferences should not be based on simulations conducted solely at parameter point estimates, but rather at various points within the confidence regions.

Bill Barnett has published close to 200 articles in professional journals and 32 books as either author or editor. His research has been published in 7 languages. He has received over 43 different awards and honors, including being a Fellow of the American Statistical Association, Fellow of the World Innovation Foundation, Fellow of the IC2 Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, Fellow of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, Honorary Professor at Henan University in China, Charter Fellow of the Society for Economic Measurement, and Charter Fellow of the Journal of Econometrics.

Bill Barnett is Founder and Editor of the Cambridge University Press journal, Macroeconomic Dynamics (see http://econ.tepper.cmu.edu/barnett/MD.html). He is also Founder and President of the rapidly growing Society for Economic Measurement (see http://sem.society.cmu.edu). In 2011, he was appointed Director of the program, Advances in Monetary and Financial Measurement, at the Center for Financial Stability, in New York City. He manages that program building on his research in monetary aggregation. The program he directs can be found at http://www.centerforfinancialstability.org/amfm.php, along with an online library linked to Divisia monetary aggregates data and studies for over 40 countries throughout the world. The Center for Financial Stability provides monthly releases of Divisia monetary aggregates for the United States, and soon will begin doing so for Europe, China, and India. He recently also became Founder and Director of the new Institute for Nonlinear Dynamical Inference in Moscow.

Recently, James J. Heckman and I edited two special issues in Bill Barnett’s honor.

The Journal of Econometrics special issue appeared in 2014 and the Econometric Reviews special issue in 2015. Those special issues contain contributions by many of the world’s most eminent economists. A conference in honor of his work in monetary aggregation is to be held at the Bank of England on 23–24 May 2017.

We agreed to have this interview over dinner at the third annual conference of the Society for Economic Measurement in Thessaloniki, Greece. That dinner took place at Palaios Panteleimonas, a village on Mount Olympus overlooking the Castle of Platamon and the Aegean Sea, about 100 km from Thessaloniki. We were so enthused about the interview proposal that night, we even danced “zebeikiko”, in the spirit of Zorba the Greek.

The interview was conducted by email over several months after we returned to North America. I have edited the script for clarity and continuity and slightly rearranged the questions and answers to fit into the following broad topic areas:

Work before Economics p. 4
Graduate Study p. 4
Early Research at the Federal Reserve Board p. 7
Monetary and Financial Aggregation p. 11
Demand Systems and Flexible Functional Forms p. 15
Nonlinear and Complex Dynamics p. 20
Founding of Journals, Monograph Series, and Societies p. 23
Reflections p. 27
Advice for Students p. 29
Selected Bibliography p. 30

I hope that you get as much out of this interview with Bill as I did. In case you do not know Bill Barnett, I hope that you meet him in this interview.

This paper has already been published as:

Serletis, A. (2017). An Interview with William A. Barnett. Econometrics, 5(4), 1-32.

According to the authors and leaders, the presentation of this paper at the conference does not violate copyright laws. Copyright of all papers and articles remains with the author and publisher, and s/he can reuse their papers in their future printed work without referring to WEA.

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3 comment

  • monetarypolicyconferenceadmin says:

    Well done work. It is comprehensive and very fascinating piece of art.

  • Ahadul Kabir Muyeed says:

    Very enlightening. Perfect advice for grad students – “If your work is not also self-motivated recreation, then you are doing something wrong.”

  • James Swofford says:

    Apostolos, Very nice interview with Bill. I think the mix of economics and personal stories is very nice.