More Spending is Not The Answer to a Slow Economy

Published May 12, 2015

Old fallacies never seem to die, they just fad away to reemerge once again later on. One such fallacy is that if there is significant unemployment and slow economic growth it must be due to not enough consumers’ spending in the economy, what Keynesian economists call a “failure of aggregate demand.”

This fallacy has been voiced, once more, in a recent interview with Joseph Stiglitz, professor of economics at Columbia University and the 2001 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics.

In an interview that appears in the British “Globe and Mail” on May 8, 2015, Stiglitz blames the sluggish economic growth in the U.S. and around the world, with accompanying unemployment, on weak market demand due to income inequality.

“You are not going to have robust growth without adequate demand,” says Stiglitz. “The people at the top who have seen big income gains are saving large portions of their income, on average 35 percent. Those at the very top are not spending their money. People at the bottom, on the other hand, have no choice. To just get by, they have to spend all their income.”

Stiglitz goes on to say, “The contention that people at the top are the job creators and, if you tax them at higher rates, they won’t create jobs is nonsense. The fact is there is talented entrepreneurs at all levels of the U.S. economy. Whenever there is demand, jobs get created and entrepreneurship flourishes. Our big corporations are sitting on upwards of $2-trillion. The reason they are not investing it is there’s no demand for their goods.”

Stiglitz argues that what is needed is to “get the economy growing by more equitably sharing income gains and investing in our future.”

Taxing or Deficit Spending Do Not Create Jobs

First, if the government attempts to “stimulate” the economy through more of its own spending, the question has to be asked: From where will come the financial means for the government to increase its expenditures?

If the government taxes the citizenry to finance its increased spending, then every dollar more that the government spends by necessity reduces taxpayers’ spending by an equivalent amount. The net change in overall or total spending in the economy would be zero.

If the government runs a budget deficit, it must borrow the dollars it wishes to spend above what it takes in, in taxes. Every dollar borrowed by the government in the loan and financial markets is one dollar less of people’s savings available for someone in the private sector to borrow for some investment or consumer purchase. Again, the net change in overall or total spending in the economy would be zero.

If it is argued that the government need not siphon away a dollar from a private-sector borrower because it can offer a higher rate of interest to attract more savings, the net result will still tend to be the same. Why?

If income earners decide to save more due to an attractively higher rate of interest the government offers to pay for some of those borrowed dollars, it means that that saver is spending fewer dollars, himself, on consumption or some other spending.

In addition, pushing up market interest rates to attract savers to lend to the government also raises the cost of borrowing for private businesses. The higher the rates of interest the more likely that some businessmen “at the margin” will find that the cost of borrowing is now greater than the anticipated rate of profit from investing a borrowed sum.

Economists call this the “crowding-out effect.” Part of the cost of funding the government’s budget deficit comes from a reduction in private sector borrowing and spending due to the higher interest costs. Thus, again, the net effect on total spending in the economy tends towards zero.

Save or Invest cartoon

Good Ideas Need Savings and Investment

Joseph Stiglitz is certainly correct that there are potentially talented entrepreneurs in all walks of life and levels of income in the United States and around the world. But having a good idea and even willingness to take a chance and start or expand an enterprise is not enough.

In most instances, you need capital to begin and operate a business over a period of time before you have anything ready to sell. You need sufficient funds to cover some of the losses that often will occur before you find a niche and attract enough consumer interest and demand to defray the costs of doing business.

In other words, there first has to be the savings that facilitates the time-consuming production that will eventually generate the product or services that can earn consumer dollars at some point in the future.

The Simple Logic of Saving, Investing and Capital Formation

Let take a simple example first. Imagine Robinson Crusoe alone on his island. If he is to escape from extremely primitive conditions of existence of mere “survival” by picking berries and attempting to catch fish in a stream with his bare hands, Crusoe must invest in the manufacture of “capital,” – tools – to assist in improving and increasing the productivity derivable from his human labor.

But to do so Crusoe must “save,” that is, he must out of his daily efforts to have enough for survival set aside a sufficient amount of berries and fish as a “store” of goods to live off to free up his time and resources that would otherwise go into immediate production for his present consumption.

He uses that freed up time and resources to, perhaps, make a bow and arrows, or a canoe and fishing net, so that after the requisite “period of investment” during which he has lived off his “savings,” he will have the capital goods – the tools of production – that will then assist him increasing the quantities, varieties and qualities of the consumption goods that previously were beyond his bare labor’s potential to obtain.

In this way, he has employed himself in making capital goods with his store of saved consumption goods to live off so his own labor can be diverted from more immediate berry picking and fishing with his bare hands.

Production Time Results in More Desired Goods

The manufacture of those capital goods and their use over a period of time once in existence must logically and temporally precede the greater availability of consumer goods that that capital’s existence now makes possible. In other words, besides the time taken to making the canoe and net, he must now paddle out into the waters off his island to first catch that larger harvest of fish that his capital goods enables him to have before he can have that increased and more varied fish supply to eat as part of his dinner.

At the same time, using his bow and arrows for hunting and utilizing his net for fishing will result in “wear and tear.” That is, capital – tools and equipment – get used up in their use, and Crusoe will have to devote part of his labors and time to maintenance and repair if his ability to hunt and fish is not to be diminished.

Furthermore, if he is to increase his supply of desired consumer goods even more from their existing availabilities and amounts he must again divert an increased amount of his labor time and resource use to “investing” in more and/or better capital goods above that required to maintain his existing capital.

Thus, the more he invests in making the capital equipment that increases his capacity to produce greater quantities, varieties and qualities of the finished goods he would like to use and consume, the more resources, time, and labor effort he has to equivalently devote to maintaining his enlarged stock of capital to sustain whatever the standard of living he has been able to establish for himself through savings and investment.

In the Market, Prices Guide Production for Consumption and Investment

Of course, in “modern society” the process is more complex than presented when using Robinson Crusoe as a first approximation. In our world, today, this all works in a competitive market system of independent private entrepreneurs who employ and directing the men and material they hire, rent or buy in the arena of exchange.

In this market setting entrepreneurial decision-makers are guided by the system of market prices that reflect the types and amounts of goods that consumers desire, and on the basis of which entrepreneurs hope to make their profits. Changes in consumer demands are expressed in changes in the relative prices for the various goods offered on the market, and these prices then direct entrepreneurs to shift the types and amounts of goods they decide to produce.

This also applies to changes people make concerning consumption and savings, that is, their demand for consumer goods in the present versus consumer goods in the future for which they put their savings aside.

In a properly functioning free market, competitive economy, a decision to consume less and save more may reduce the current demand for some consumer goods. But the greater savings reemerges as spending on investment activities and other types of borrowing when the increased savings results in lower rates of interest to attract willing borrowers in the financial markets where that greater savings has been deposited.

But why would investors borrow this greater savings, even at lower rates of interest, if the current demand for goods on the market has not increased or maybe even gone down?

Fire as the Next Big Investment

Saving “Today” Means a Desire to Demand More “Tomorrow”

This was explained by the famous Austrian economist, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk (1851-1914) near the beginning the twentieth century.

The man who saves curtails his demand for present goods but by no means his desire for pleasure-affording goods generally . . .

“The person who saves is not willing to hand over his savings without return, but requires that they be given back at some future time, usually indeed with interest, either to himself or his heirs.

“Through savings not a single particle of the demand for goods is extinguished outright . . . the demand for goods, the wish for means of enjoyment is, under whatever circumstances men are found, insatiable. A person may have enough or even too much of a particular kind of goods at a particular time, but not of goods in general nor for all time. The doctrine applies particularly to savings.

“For the principle motive of those who save is precisely to provide for their own futures or for the futures of their heirs. This means nothing else than that they wish to secure and make certain their command over the means to the satisfaction of their future needs, that is, over consumption goods in a future time. In other words, those who save curtail their demand for consumption goods in the present merely to increase proportionally their demand for consumption goods in the future.”

But even if there is a potential future demand for consumer goods, how shall entrepreneurs know what type of capital investments to undertake and what types of greater quantities of goods to offer in preparation for that higher future demand?

Böhm-Bawerk ‘s reply was to point out that production is always forward-looking, a process of applying productive means today with a plan to have finished consumer goods for sale tomorrow. The very purpose of entrepreneurial competitiveness is to constantly test the market, so as to better anticipate and correct for existing and changing patterns of consumer demand.

Competition is the market method through which supplies are brought into balance with consumer demands. And if errors are made, the resulting losses or less than the anticipated profits act as the stimuli for appropriate adjustments in production and reallocations of labor and resources among alternative lines of production.

When left to itself, Böhm-Bawerk argued, the market successfully assures that demands are tending to equal supply, and that the time horizons of investments match the available savings needed to maintain the society’s existing and expanding structure of capital in the long run.

Wages are Paid Out of Savings, Not Current Consumer Demand

Böhm-Bawerk explained that all production takes time, and invariably through a series of steps or “stages of production” that finally leads to a finished consumer good available for sale and use. He emphasized that the very nature of the time structure of production means that the goods available for consumption today are goods the production of which extends backwards in time over many production periods of the past, over months or years.

And the production processes being begun “today” and which will continue over the time periods of many “tomorrows” will only be completed and ready in the form of finished consumer goods at some point in the future.

The finished consumer goods bought today do not represent a “demand for labor” today. The entrepreneurs demanded that labor in the various stages of production at different times in the past while the consumer goods being purchased today were in the process of being produced.

And the labor being demanded “today” in the various stages of production, each stage of which represents a future product at a different degree of completion and that will be, respectively, ready for sale as a consumer good at different time periods of the future, is a demand by entrepreneurs looking to future sales, not current period consumer demand for “commodities.”

But this “demand for labor” by entrepreneurs through these future-oriented stages of production is entirely dependent upon the extend to which incomes and revenues earned in the present and future periods (and the resources they represent) are partly saved and not consumed.

It is this savings of resources not being utilized for more immediate consumption purposes, that “frees” part of the productive capacity of the society to be diverted to the making and maintaining of capital and providing the means to pay wages to workers who will be hired and employed in the respective processes of production for long periods of time before those specific goods in the manufacture of which they are participating will be offered for sale and generating a revenue in the future.

Thus, it is savings that represents the greater part of the “demand for labor” in the production processes of the market and not the current period’s demand for consumer goods.

Don’t Tax Away the Wealth that Provides the Savings for Production

Keynesian economists like Joseph Stiglitz miss all of this in their simplified and, in fact, simplistic view of the world that all that is needed is more government spending and greater “aggregate demand” to create more employment today.

When the “rich” are saving rather than consuming they are, in fact, supplying part of the financial wherewithal (and the real resources their savings represents) to maintain and expand the capital supply and to provide the means to pay workers and other resource suppliers incomes over the periods of production that everyday culminates in the availability of the goods and services (and the standard of living) we take for granted.

Under Stiglitz’s own argument, low or lower-income individuals in society use more of their incomes for consumption and less for savings. By using various government fiscal and other policies to transfer wealth and income from those in society who are greater savers to those who are greater consumers, the net effect over time can be to reduce capital formation and productive investment looking to the future.

It is savings that supports investment, enables capital formation, and creates and sustains jobs. Faster growth and more jobs depend upon savings and market-oriented investment, not the level or amount of current consumption spending.

Heaven - No Govn't and No Taxes Cartoon

Taxes and Regulations Reduce the Ability and Incentives to Invest

But what about Stiglitz’s statement that American “big corporations are sitting on upwards of $2-trillion.” What he failed to mention is that over half of that money is parked overseas where American firms have earned those sums from foreign investments and sales of goods. Why haven’t those dollars come home?

The Financial Times reported on May 10, 2015, “The growing cash piles underline the reluctance of boardrooms to repatriate money held abroad even as they tap debt markets to fund record spending on dividends, buybacks and acquisitions.”

U.S. businesses are double taxed if they bring those dollars back to the U.S.. The foreign government in whose country they earned those profits has already taxed them on their net revenues. If they bring any or all of those dollars back to the United States, Uncle Sam will tax them again on their foreign gains, a practice that few other government follow around the world.

But what about the profits made a home? Why aren’t more of those profits plowed back into productive activities and forward-looking investments? Partly this is due to what economic historian, Robert Higgs, has called “regime uncertainty,” that is, the uncertainties concerning the future direction of government policies that makes investment decisions more risky than it otherwise has to be.

This includes the uncertainty surrounding what to expect in terms of government regulations, controls, commands and restrictions in an environment in which the U.S. Federal code of regulations on business activity numbers over 175,000 pages. The enforcement of these regulations is widely open to the discretion and decisions of thousands of government bureaucrats, with often total unpredictability of where and when the regulators will appear and what they will demand or accuse an enterprise of having violated.

Matching the hindrances of the interventionist state is the manipulations of money and interest rates by central banks everywhere, which distorts markets, misdirects capital and labor use resulting in unsustainable booms and inescapable downturns that bring about wrongly invested capital and misallocated labor. This “wrong twists” to the market takes time to overcome and correct.

It is government impediments to open, competitive markets – whether in America or in other parts of the world – that are the causes to behind slow growth and sluggish job creation, not “the rich” and their savings.

[Originally published at Epic Times]