Deck the Halls with Macro Follies
[Reprinted from EconStories.]
Each year, our attention turns to the holidays… and to holiday consumer spending! We’re told repeatedly that, because consumer spending is 70 percent of measured GDP, such spending is vital to economic growth and job creation. This must mean that savings, the opposite of consumption, is bad for growth.
This view of macroeconomics was first popularly asserted by Thomas Malthus in 1820, nearly 200 years ago. Malthus believed recessions were caused by “underconsumption” because there was a “general glut” of goods unsold. To recover from a recession and grow, we needed to stop all the saving and spend more to buy up all the goods on store shelves. Savers are like the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge. If you want a happy holiday, you’ve got to clear those shelves and give people a reason to produce more and create jobs. Or so Malthus thought.
John Maynard Keynes resurrected this approach and built on it with his influential “General Theory”, which now underpins much of our government policy and public discussion of spending and economic growth. Keynesians believe aggregate spending drives the economy and savings is a “leak” out of the flow of spending. Indeed, this economic philosophy underpins many people’s widespread obsession with retail sales each holiday season. Keynesian Macro Santa’s sack is filled with spending.
But there is another view on recessions, recoveries and growth.
Classical and Austrian economists such as Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say and Friedrich Hayek viewed savings as the vital lifeblood of economic growth and production as the means by which we live better and consume more in the long term. Our savings aren’t simply taken out of the economic system, but become the source of capital that entrepreneurs use to create new goods and increase productivity. These economists believe this increased productivity is the key to a wealthier world. Before we consume, we must effectively produce what others value — at prices that cover the costs. This fundamental idea, that our demand for goods is enabled and constituted by our supply of other goods came to be known as the “Law of Markets” and later “Say’s Law”. For classical and Austrian economics, recessions happen when producers make mistakes. They create goods that can’t be sold at a profit. These malinvestments tend to cluster in a recession as a result of systematic problems, such as disruptions in the financial system and often government interventions in the economy.
Recovery and growth in the classical and Austrian view is driven by restructuring production so that entrepreneurs discover again the best — i.e. the most valuable and sustainable — ways to serve customers. That process is led by new entrepreneurs and driven by savers who make capital available to fund new investments and new ventures. Sustainable saving and investment means creating more value for others while using fewer resources. This process lies at the core of healthy economic growth, including better job opportunities and a rising standard of living.