Why Keynesians should not be so careless with terminology

Should we print, not print? Stimulate, not stimulate? Is austerity the right or wrong policy? Is government spending or printing effective? If we ask two economists these questions, we will likely get three opinions for each question. Economists seem confused, yet these questions are more important today than ever. Where does this confusion come from? Doesn’t economic theory give us clear cut answers? It does, but poor terminology and a lack of focus have muddied the waters. Many macroeconomic disagreements can be elucidated with a better understanding of the role played by holding cash, or hoarding, in economics.

To a large degree, Keynes is to blame for much of this confusion by using a double entendre. In his ‘General Theory’, he did not clearly distinguish between saving and hoarding. The paradox of thrift is a misnomer. Thrift is both savings and hoarding. It should correctly be called the ‘paradox of hoarding’. Economists should not be this careless with terminology.

In a circular flow economy, the value of output must be equal to income. Income represents claims on goods and services, and can be divided into three categories. It can be consumed, saved or hoarded. Consumption is using claims on goods and services for personal satisfaction. Savings might be defined as a transfer of claims from one group to another. The saver is giving up his claims to be able to consume more goods and services in the future. He makes this transfer to investors who use these claims to purchase plants and equipment to produce goods and services in the future. The last category is hoarding, which is the equivalent of stuffing money in your mattress. From income, it is the only claim that is not used to purchase currently produced goods and services.  

Since these claims are unused, Keynesians fear, in a circular flow economy, the value of output would be higher than the amount of claims used to purchase that output. Since some output would remain unsold, inventories would rise, output would be curtailed, and a downward spiral in output would ensue. Any future shift in hoarding will create another spiral in output. In this scenario, prices do not fall to bring the value of output in line with the value of claims. In a Keynesian framework, prices are sticky downward.

An uncomplicated example will make this point clearer. Suppose we have 10 pencils and a money supply of $10. Only at an equilibrium price of $1 will there be no excess output or excess money.

Since the government does not create pencils, the only way it can obtain pencils is by taking claims from others by borrowing, taxing or printing. If it prints $10 and used it to buy pencils, the price of pencils will increase to $2 (inflation). The government will obtain 5 pencils by lowering the purchasing power of money. It has taxed cash balances the equivalent of 5 pencils. The same logic applies to taxes or borrowing. Every dollar printed, borrowed or taxed to finance government spending displaces an equivalent purchasing power from private consumption or investment spending. Government spending is robbing Peter to pay Paul. It rearranges the deck chairs, but does not add deck chairs.

Most economists would agree with this ‘crowding out’ example. Why then do some economists advocate more government spending if government spending displaces an equivalent amount of private spending? The answer lies in the role played by hoarding.

From our initial example, suppose we hoard $5. The price of output will fall to $0.50 since we have a money supply of $5 chasing 10 pencils. If input prices also fall proportionately from $0.80 to $0.40, we are still making the same profit rate and the economy has simply adjusted input and output prices to a new level of hoarding.  

The Keynesian fear is twofold. If output prices are sticky, the price of a pencil will remain stuck at $1, or will only drop with a long lag. In this situation, with $5 chasing 10 pencils at a price of $1, we will be left with 5 unsold pencils. This excess output will lead businesses to curtail output, fire workers, until we are left with a new equilibrium of maybe only 5 pencils. The entire adjustment process has been in output and not in price.

The second fear is even if output prices adjust, input prices do not adjust quickly enough. If input prices remain at $0.80 while output prices are at $0.50 we are producing at a loss, which leads to less output, more hoarding, and a downward deflation-depression spiral in the economy.  

The Keynesian prescription to avoid this depression in output is to have the government substitute its own claims for those being hoarded. The government’s claims are substituting for claims not being used. The price of pencils would remain at $1, with $5 of private demand and $5 of government demand. The government would have to print and use $5. It can neither borrow nor tax to finance this government spending since that would be mostly displacing claims that are not being hoarded.

According to the well know Keynesian balance budget multiplier, if the government spends $1 and taxes $1, output will rise by $1. This output magic occurs because the amount taxed reduced hoarding. If, instead, the amount taxed had reduced savings, in the place of hoarding, $1 of government spending will displace $1 of consumption and (savings) investment spending: the multiplier is zero, and government spending, fiscal policy, has no direct demand influence on output. Of course, in reality the extended impact of such transfers will create a negative multiplier since we are taking from the productive private sector and giving to the counterproductive public sector.

Much of Keynes’s economic analysis was to disproportionately elevate the importance of hoarding. Classical economists considered the level of hoarding inconsequential, and its changes even less so.

From this analysis we can draw the following conclusions from a Keynesian perspective. Government spending is only effective if it substitutes for claims that are being hoarded. This spending must occur while the public is increasing its desire to hoard, such as after a crash such as 2000 or 2008, and is only justifiable if there is a slow adjustment of both output and input prices. Also, this substitution is only effective if it is done through monetary and not fiscal policy.

Of course, this analysis has only looked at the direct aggregate demand effects of such printing, and has not examined the microeconomic impacts, supply side and other negative effects of printing money.

In addition, what happens when the economy improves and people reverse their hoarding? We will now have 10 pencils and $15. Other things being equal, prices will rise from $1 to $1.50, unless the government retires the $5 it put into the system. If they do, this will create another round of altered relative prices. The medicine is likely worse than the disease.

While Keynesians may have been able to make a case for printing press money as a substitute for hoarding in 2008, it is impossible to do so today. Current government spending or printing is simply displacing claims from the private sector. Today, there is no theoretical justification for the current overzealous printing, borrowing and taxing. Economists should be united against this displacement of claims. Growth and employment are simply more likely if claims are in private hands than in public hands.

You might want to define saving as a transfer of claims from one group to another, but the more usual definition is that part of income originating in production that is not used for final consumption (SNA 2008). This includes hoarding. Hoarding is not a seperate category to saving. You can't accuse economists of being careless for using SNA terminology, rather than your personal definitions.
Oh yes I can! One of the reasons Keynes's general theory is so hard to read is that he uses the word "savings" to define two separate activities. The activity of transferring claims and the activity of holding claims. Keynes constantly uses the same word and toggles between the two meanings. It is ONLY by clearly defining the terms that we understand that keynes's contribution was really to emphasize hoarding as a critical activity. The classical economist considered hoarding and realized that it was, in reality, unimportant!. That the SNA continues this confusion that has plagued economics for 80 years does not surprise me!. The longer version of this article will shortly be published at Mises Canada. For me, this article is critical to understanding macroeconomics today, and should be required reading for all first year students in economics.

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