About Irving Fisher
Irving Fisher (February 27, 1867 – April 29, 1947) was an American economist, inventor, and social campaigner. He was one of the earliest American neoclassical economists, though his later work on debt deflation has been embraced by the Post-Keynesian school.
Fisher made important contributions to utility theory and general equilibrium. He was also a pioneer in the rigurous study of intertemporal choice in markets, which led him to develop a theory of capital and interest rates. His research on the quantity theory of money inaugurated the school of macroeconomic thought known as "monetarism." Both James Tobin and Milton Friedman called Fisher "the greatest economist the United States has ever produced."
Fisher was perhaps the first celebrity economist, but his reputation during his lifetime was irreparably harmed by his public statements, just prior to the Wall Street Crash of 1929, claiming that the stock market had reached "a permanently high plateau." His subsequent theory of debt deflation as an explanation of the Great Depression was largely ignored in favor of the work of John Maynard Keynes. His reputation has since recovered in neoclassical economics, particularly after his work was revived in the late 1950s and more widely due to an increased interest in debt deflation after the late-2000s recession. Some concepts named after Fisher include the Fisher equation, the Fisher hypothesis, the international Fisher effect, and the Fisher separation theorem.
Fisher was born in Saugerties, New York. His father was a teacher and a Congregational minister, who raised his son to believe he must be a useful member of society. As a child, he had remarkable mathematical ability and a flair for invention. A week after he was admitted to Yale College his father died, at age 53. Irving then supported his mother, brother, and himself, mainly by tutoring. He graduated first in his class with a B.A degree in 1888, having also been elected as a member of the Skull and Bones society.
In 1891, Fisher received the first Ph.D. in economics granted by Yale. His faculty advisors were the theoretical physicist Willard Gibbs and the sociologist William Graham Sumner. As a student, Fisher had shown particular talent and inclination for mathematics, but he found that economics offered greater scope for his ambition and social concerns. His thesis, published by Yale in 1892 as Mathematical Investigations in the Theory of Value and Prices, was a rigorous development of the theory of general equilibrium. When he began writing the thesis, Fisher had not been aware that Léon Walras and his continental European disciples had already covered similar ground. Nonetheless, Fisher's work was a very significant contribution and was immediately recognized and praised as first-rate by such European masters as Francis Edgeworth.
After graduating from Yale, Fisher studied in Berlin and Paris. From 1890 onward, he remained at Yale, first as a tutor, then after 1898 as a professor of political economy, and after 1935 as professor emeritus. He edited the Yale Review from 1896 to 1910 and was active in many learned societies, institutes, and welfare organizations. He was president of the American Economic Association in 1918. A leading early proponent of econometrics, in 1930 he founded, with Ragnar Frisch and Charles F. Roos the Econometric Society, of which he was the first president.
Fisher was a prolific writer, producing journalism as well as technical books and articles, and addressing various social issues surrounding of the First World War, the prosperous 1920s and the depressed 1930s. He made several practical inventions, the most notable of which was an "index visible filing system" which he patented in 1913 and sold to Kardex Rand (later Remington Rand) in 1925. This, and his subsequent stock investments, made him a wealthy man until his personal finances were badly hit by the Crash of 1929.
Fisher was also an active social and health campaigner, as well as an advocate of vegetarianism, Prohibition, and eugenics. He died in New York City in 1947, at the age of 80.
James Tobin argued that the intellectual breakthroughs that marked the neoclassical revolution in economics occurred in Europe around 1870. The next two decades witnessed lively debates, which led to the new theory being more or less incorporated into the classical tradition that preceded it. In the 1890s, according to Joseph A. Schumpeter there emerged
A large expanse of common ground and ... a feeling of repose, both of which created, in the superficial observer, an impression of finality -- the finality of a Greek temple that spreads its perfect lines against a cloudless sky. Of course, Tobin argues, the temple was by no means complete. Its building and decoration continue to this day, even while its faithful throngs worship within. American economists were not present at the creation. To a considerable extent they built their own edifice independently, designing some new architecture in the process. They participated actively in the international controversies and syntheses of the period 1870-1914. At least two Americans were prominent builders of the "temple," John Bates Clark and Irving Fisher. They and others brought neoclassical theory into American journals, classrooms, and textbooks, and its analytical tools into the kits of researchers and practitioners. Eventually, for better or worse, their paradigm would dominate economic science in this country.
In reviewing the history of utility theory, economist George Stigler wrote that Fisher's doctoral thesis had been "brilliant" and stressed that it contained "the first careful examination of the measurability of the utility function and its relevance to demand theory." While his published work exhibited an unusual degree of mathematical sophistication for an economist of his day, Fisher always sought to bring his analysis to life and to present his theories as lucidly as possible. For instance, to complement the arguments in his doctoral thesis, he built an elaborate hydraulic machine with pumps and levers, allowing him to demonstrate visually how the equilibrium prices in the market adjusted in response to changes in supply or demand.
Interest and capital
Fisher is probably best remembered today in neoclassical economics for his theory of capital, investment, and interest rates, first exposited in his The Nature of Capital and Income (1906) and elaborated on in The Rate of Interest (1907). His 1930 treatise, The Theory of Interest, summed up a lifetime's research into capital, capital budgeting, credit markets, and the factors (including inflation) that determine interest rates.
Fisher saw that subjective economic value is not only a function of the amount of goods and services owned or exchanged, but also of the moment in time when they are purchased. A good available now has a different value than the same good available at a later date; value has a time as well as a quantity dimension. The relative price of goods available at a future date, in terms of goods sacrificed now, is measured by the interest rate. Fisher made free use of the standard diagrams used to teach undergraduate economics, but labeled the axes "consumption now" and "consumption next period" (instead of the usual schematic alternatives of "apples" and "oranges"). The resulting theory, one of considerable power and insight, was presented in detail in The Theory of Interest (for a concise exposition, see here.)
This model, later generalized to the case of K goods and N periods (including the case of infinitely many periods) has become a standard theory of capital and interest, and is described in Gravelle and Rees, and Aliprantis, Brown, and Burkinshaw. This theoretical advance is explained in Hirshleifer.
Fisher's research into the basic theory of prices and interest rates did not touch directly on the great social issues of the day. On the other hand, his monetary economics did and this grew to be the main focus of Fisher’s mature work.
It was Fisher who (following the pioneering work of Simon Newcomb) formulated the quantity theory of money in terms of the "equation of exchange:" Let M be the total stock of money, P the price level, T the amount of transactions carried out using money, and V the velocity of circulation of money, so that
Later economists replaced T by the real output Y (or Q), usually quantified by the real Gross domestic product (GDP).
Fisher's Appreciation and Interest was an abstract analysis of the behavior of interest rates when the price level is changing. It emphasized the distinction between real and nominal interest rates:
where is the real interest rate, is the nominal interest rate, and the inflation is a measure of the increase in the price level. When inflation is sufficiently low, the real interest rate can be approximated as the nominal interest rate minus the expected inflation rate. The resulting equation is known as the Fisher equation in his honor.
Fisher believed that investors and savers —people in general— were afflicted in varying degrees by "money illusion"; they could not see past the money to the goods the money could buy. In an ideal world, changes in the price level would have no effect on production or employment. In the actual world with money illusion, inflation (and deflation) did serious harm. For more than forty years, Fisher elaborated his vision of the damaging “dance of the dollar” and devised various schemes to “stabilize” money, i.e. to stabilize the price level. He was one of the first to subject macroeconomic data, including the money stock, interest rates, and the price level, to statistical analyses and tests. In the 1920s, he introduced the technique later called distributed lags. In 1973, the Journal of Political Economy posthumously reprinted his 1926 paper on the statistical relation between unemployment and inflation, retitling it as "I discovered the Phillips curve". Index numbers played an important role in his monetary theory, and his book The Making of Index Numbers has remained influential down to the present day.
Following the stock market crash of 1929, and in light of the ensuing Great Depression, Fisher developed a theory of economic crises called debt-deflation, which attributed the crises to the bursting of a credit bubble. According to Fisher, the bursting of the credit bubble unleashes a series of effects that have serious negative impact on the real economy:
1.Debt liquidation and distress selling.
2.Contraction of the money supply as bank loans are paid off.
3.A fall in the level of asset prices.
4.A still greater fall in the net worth of businesses, precipitating bankruptcies.
5.A fall in profits.
6.A reduction in output, in trade and in employment.
7.Pessimism and loss of confidence.
8.Hoarding of money.
9.A fall in nominal interest rates and a rise in deflation-adjusted interest rates.
This theory was largely ignored in favor of Keynesian economics, in part because of the damage to Fisher's reputation caused by his public optimism about the stock market, just prior to the crash. Debt-deflation has experienced a revival of mainstream interest since the 1980s, and particularly with the Late-2000s recession, and is now the major theory with which Fisher's name is associated.
Stock market crash of 1929
The stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression cost Fisher much of his personal wealth and academic reputation. He famously predicted, three days before the crash, "Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau." Irving Fisher stated on October 21 that the market was "only shaking out of the lunatic fringe" and went on to explain why he felt the prices still had not caught up with their real value and should go much higher. On Wednesday, October 23, he announced in a banker’s meeting "security values in most instances were not inflated." For months after the Crash, he continued to assure investors that a recovery was just around the corner. Once the Great Depression was in full force, he did warn that the ongoing drastic deflation was the cause of the disastrous cascading insolvencies then plaguing the American economy because deflation increased the real value of debts fixed in dollar terms. Fisher was so discredited by his 1929 pronouncements and by the failure of a firm he had started that few people took notice of his "debt-deflation" analysis of the Depression. People instead eagerly turned to the ideas of Keynes. Fisher's debt-deflation scenario has made something of a comeback since 1980 or so.
Constructive Income Taxation
Lawrence Lokken, the University of Miami School of Law professor of economics, credits Fisher's 1942 book with the concept behind the Unlimited Savings Accumulation Tax, a reform introduced in the United States Senate in 1995 by Senator Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Georgia), and Senator Bob Kerrey (D-Nebraska). The concept was that unnecessary spending (which is hard to define in a law) can be taxed by taxing income minus all net investments and savings, and minus an allowance for essential purchases, thus making funds available for investment.
The lay public perhaps knew Fisher best as a health campaigner and eugenicist. In 1898 he found that he had tuberculosis, the disease that killed his father. After three years in sanatoria, Fisher returned to work with even greater energy and with a second vocation as a health campaigner. He advocated vegetarianism, avoiding red meat, and exercise, writing How to Live: Rules for Healthful Living Based on Modern Science, a USA best seller.
In 1912 he also became a member of the scientific advisory to the Eugenics Record Office and was the first president of the American Eugenics Society.
Fisher was also a strong believer in the now-discredited "focal sepsis" theory of physician Henry Cotton, who believed that mental illness was attributable to infectious material residing in the roots of the teeth, recesses in the bowels, and other places in the human body, and that surgical removal of this infectious material would cure the patient's mental disorder. Fisher believed in these theories so thoroughly that when his daughter Margaret Fisher was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Fisher had numerous sections of her bowel and colon removed at Dr. Cotton's hospital, eventually resulting in his daughter's death.
Fisher was also an ardent supporter of the Prohibition of alcohol in the United States, and wrote three short books arguing that Prohibition was justified on the grounds of both public health and hygiene, as well as economic productivity and efficiency, and should therefore be strictly enforced by the United States government.