Is Something Out of Nothing Possible?
In his testimony to the House of Representatives Budget Committee on January 17, 2008, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke gave strong support for President Bush's fiscal stimulus package to strengthen the economy. Among various tax measures the package also offers a direct tax relief for low- and moderate-income individuals. According to Bernanke there is good evidence that cash that goes to low- and moderate-income individuals is more likely to be spent in the near term — hence, from this perspective, it is going to be beneficial for economic growth.
For most economists and financial commentators the heart of economic growth is the increase in the demand for goods and services. It is held that increases or decreases in demand are behind increases and decreases in the economy's production of goods and services. It is also held that the overall economy's output increases by a multiple of the change in expenditure by government, consumers, or businesses.
An example will illustrate how an initial spending raises the overall output by the multiple of this spending. Let us assume that, out of an additional dollar received, individuals spend 90¢ and save 10¢. Also, let us assume that consumers have increased their expenditure by $100 million. As a result of this, retailers' revenue rises by $100 million. Retailers in response to the increase in their income consume 90% of the $100 million, i.e., they raise expenditure on goods and services by $90 million. The recipients of these $90 million in turn spend 90% of the $90 million, i.e., $81 million. Then the recipients of the $81 million spend 90% of this sum, which is $72.9 million, and so on. Note that the key in this way of thinking is that expenditure by one person becomes the income of another person.
At each stage in the spending chain, people spend 90% of the additional income they receive. This process eventually ends, so it is held, with total output higher by $1 billion (10*$100 million) than it was before consumers had increased their initial expenditure by $100 million.
Observe that the more that is being spent from additional income the greater the multiplier is and therefore the impact of the initial spending on overall output is larger. For instance, if people change their habits and spend 95% from each dollar, the multiplier will become 20. Conversely, if they decide to spend only 80% and save 20% then the multiplier will be 5. All of this means that the less that is being saved, the larger is the impact of an increase in overall demand on overall output.
The popularizer of the magical power of the multiplier, John Maynard Keynes, wrote,
If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coal mines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is.
Is the multiplier a real thing?
Is more savings bad for the economy as the multiplier model indicates? Take for instance Bob the farmer who has produced twenty tomatoes and consumes five tomatoes. What's left at his disposal is fifteen saved tomatoes (real savings). With the help of the saved fifteen tomatoes Bob can now secure various other goods. For instance, he secures one loaf of bread from John the baker by paying for the loaf of bread with five tomatoes. Bob also buys a pair of shoes from Paul the shoemaker by paying for the shoes with ten tomatoes.
When Bob the farmer exercises his demand for one loaf of bread and one pair of shoes he is transferring five tomatoes to John the baker and ten tomatoes to Paul the shoemaker. Bob's saved tomatoes maintain and enhance the life and well being of the baker and the shoemaker. Likewise the saved loaf of bread and the saved pair of shoes maintain the life and well being of Bob the farmer. Note that it is saved final consumer goods— which sustain the baker, the farmer, and the shoemaker — that makes it possible to keep the flow of production going.
Now, the owners of final consumer goods, rather than exchanging them for other consumer goods, could decide to use them to secure better tools and machinery. With better tools and machinery, a greater output and a better quality of consumer goods can be produced some time in the future.
By exchanging a portion of their saved consumer goods for tools and machinery, the owners of consumer goods are in fact transferring their real savings to individuals who specialize in making these tools and machinery. In short, real savings sustain these individuals while they are busy making these tools and machinery.
Once these tools and machinery are built, this permits an increase in the production of consumer goods. As the flow of production expands, this permits more savings, all other things being equal, which in turn permits a further increase in the production of tools and machinery. This in turn makes it possible to lift further the production of consumer goods, i.e., raise the purchasing power in the economy. So, contrary to popular thinking, more savings actually expands and not contracts the production flow of consumer goods.
Can the increase in the demand for consumer goods lead to an increase in the overall output by the multiple of the increase in demand? To be able to accommodate the increase in his demand for goods, the baker must have means of payment, i.e., bread to pay for goods and services that he desires. We have seen that he secures five tomatoes by paying for them with a loaf of bread. Likewise the shoemaker supports his demand for ten tomatoes with a pair of shoes. The tomato farmer supports his demand for bread and shoes with his saved fifteen tomatoes.
Once the supply of final goods increases, this permits an increase in demand for goods. The baker's increase in the production of bread permits him to increase demand for other goods. In this sense the increase in the production of goods gives rise to demand for goods. In short, people are engaged in production in order to be able to exercise demand for goods to maintain their life and well-being.
We have seen that what enables the expansion in the supply of final consumer goods is the increase in capital goods or tools and machinery. What in turn permits the increase in tools and machinery is real savings. We can thus infer that the increase in consumption must be in line with the increase in production. From this we can also deduce that consumption doesn't cause the production to increase by the multiple of the increase in consumption. The increase in production is in accordance with what the pool of real savings permits and is not constrained by consumers' demand as such. Production cannot expand without the support from the pool of real savings, i.e., something cannot emerge out of nothing.
Let us examine the effect of an increase in the government's demand on an economy's overall output. In an economy, which is comprised of a baker, a shoemaker, and a tomato grower, another individual enters the scene. This individual is an enforcer who is exercising his demand for goods by means of force.
Can such demand give rise to more output, as the popular thinking has it? On the contrary, it will impoverish the producers. The baker, the shoemaker, and the farmer will be forced to part with their product in an exchange for nothing and this in turn will weaken the flow of production of final consumer goods. Again, as one can see, not only does the increase in government outlays not raise overall output by a positive multiple, but on the contrary this leads to the weakening in the process of wealth generation in general. According to Mises,
[T]here is need to emphasize the truism that a government can spend or invest only what it takes away from its citizens and that its additional spending and investment curtails the citizens' spending and investment to the full extent of its quantity.
Does the introduction of money make the multiplier possible?
The introduction of money does not alter our conclusions. Money only helps to facilitate trade among producers — it doesn't generate any real stuff. In short, money is just a claim on real saved goods. Mises concurred with Jean-Baptiste Say:
Commodities, says Say, are ultimately paid for not by money, but by other commodities. Money is merely the commonly used medium of exchange; it plays only an intermediary role. What the seller wants ultimately to receive in exchange for the commodities sold is other commodities.
When an individual increases his spending by $100, all it means is that he has lowered his demand for money by $100. We can also say that the individual has exercised his claim over real saved goods to the tune of $100. The seller of goods has now acquired $100 of claims on real savings. We can also say that seller's demand for money has increased by $100. All this, however, doesn't give rise to an overall increase in output, as suggested by popular thinking. The claims on real savings were shifted from one individual to another individual. The increase in monetary spending does not give rise to any increase in income in the economy. Likewise if the seller will now spend 90% of $100, all that we will have is a situation wherein his demand for money has fallen by $90, i.e., he has exercised his claim on the existing pool of real goods to the extent of $90. (Somebody else's demand for money has now risen by $90.)
Also, with all other things being equal, if individuals have increased their expenditure on some goods, then they will be forced to spend less on other goods. This means that the overall spending in an economy remains unchanged.
Only if the amount of money in the economy increases, all other things being equal, spending in money terms will follow suit. However, the spending increase in this case is not on account of some multiplier but because of the increase in the money supply. The increase in monetary expenditure that results from an increase in money supply cannot produce the expansion in real output, contrary to the popular story.
All that it will generate is a reshuffling of the existing pool of real savings. It will enrich the early receivers of the new money at the expense of last receivers. Obviously then, a loose monetary policy that is aimed at boosting consumers' demand cannot boost real output by a multiple of the initial increase in consumer demand. Not only will loose money policy not lift production, but, on the contrary, it will impoverish wealth generators in exactly the same way as the enforcer in our previous example.
Summary and conclusion
John Maynard Keynes's writings remain as influential today as they were seventy years ago. His ideas continue to be the driving force of economic policy makers at the Fed and government institutions. These ideas permeate the thinking and writings of the most influential economists on Wall Street and in academia.
The heart of the Keynesian philosophy is that what drives the economy is demand for goods, and economic recessions are predominantly the result of insufficient demand. In the Keynesian framework, an increase in demand not only lifts overall output, but that output increases by a multiple of the initial increase in demand. Within this framework, something can be created out of nothing.
In the real world, an artificial boost in demand that is not supported by production leads to the dilution of the pool of real savings and, contrary to the Keynesian view, to a shrinking in the flow of real wealth. The result is economic impoverishment.
Frank Shostak is an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute and a frequent contributor to Mises.org. He is chief economist of M.F. Global. Send him mail and see his outstanding Mises.org Daily Articles Archive. Comment on the blog.
 Ben S. Bernanke in his testimony to the House of Representatives Budget Committee responding to questions January 17, 2008.
 J.M. Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Macmillan & Co. LTD (1964), p. 129.
 Ludwig von Mises, Human Action. 3rd revised edition. Contemporary Books Inc., p. 744.
 Ludwig von Mises, "Lord Keynes and Say's Law." The Critics of Keynesian Economics. Henry Hazlitt (ed.). University Press of America (1983), p. 316.