Tag Archives: business cycles

The One Minute Case Against Consumptionism

There is a tradeoff between economic growth and consumption

Economic growth is made possible by forgoing current consumption. For example, consider the case of a teenager considering whether to save money for his future. If he spends his salary on toys and trinkets, he will never accumulate any savings. If, on the other hand, he minimizes expenses and saves money for college, he will forgo current consumption and invest in capital improvements. The same tradeoff applies to all consumers and producers: capital improvements require a sacrifice in current consumption to invest resources needed to expand future production.

Production, not consumption drives economic growth

The lack of a consumer culture is not an impediment to economic growth, as resources that are not consumed are invested into new markets and production capital. If a consumer forfeits a new car now to buy a better car at some point in the future, his savings are not lost. Instead of being directed into present consumption, his savings become the investment capital for new factories and R&D into cheaper and better cars. This is why such high economic growth is possible in “Asian tigers” such as Hong Kong and South Korea – high rates of savings support rapid technological progress and investment into industry at the cost of a much more frugal lifestyle than in the West.

Capital has structure

Politicians and the media treat GDP as a single number, but it is crucial to understand that producers face a choice between producing consumer goods and investing in intermediate goods used to create consumer goods. Those goods differ as well: a factory owner can invest in merely maintaining his factory, building a similar factory to expand production, or engaging in a long-term research and development program in a new product or production process. Thus, the goods produced by an economy can be one, two, or more level removed from consumer goods.

Capital investments require savings and stability

Economic and technological progress requires that entrepreneurs make long-term investments in intermediate production goods many levels removed from the consumer. In order for this to happen, two things are necessary: that consumers forgo current consumption to invest in future production, and that reliable long term predictions can be made about future savings rates and demand patterns.

Monetary policy disrupts economic growth

Governments control over the currency allows them to use monetary policy to achieve short-term economic goals, such as increasing GDP. But the consequences of artificially manipulating interest rates are disastrous. By expanding the money supply through manipulation of interest rates or (as is happening now) sending money directly from the printing presses to banks and other corporations, the government is devaluing savings and redirecting them into increased consumer spending. This improves the economic statistics in the short run at the cost of wiping out the resources set aside for long-term capital improvements. Furthermore, the arbitrary nature of government intervention in the economy makes long-term predictions about future savings and demand impossible.

Let the market direct savings and investment or face financial ruin

There is no single right answer  to the tradeoff between current consumption and the savings available to invest in future production and increased economic growth. Every individual must choose for himself how to balance present spending with investments in his future. In a free market, the sum of individual savings rates becomes the real interest rate.

For the last few decades, America’s spending binge has been funded by foreign investment and rapid technological innovation, but ultimately, unless we drastically cut our consumption, and direct our income into savings and repaying our debts, we will find our money increasingly worthless both here and internationally.  The dire consequences of hyperinflation can be seen in Zimbawbe, where life expectancy has declined from 60 to 37/34 years, unemployment is at 80%, and as much as half the surviving population has left the country.

Further Reading

2 Comments

Filed under Economics

The One Minute Case for the Austrian Business Cycle Theory

The Austrian Business Cycle Theory was developed by the economist Ludwig von Mises to explain the phenomenon of business cycles. It provides crucial insight for understanding the cause of cyclical boom/bust cycles and their connection the government’s manipulation of the economy. To understand the Austrian Business Cycle Theory, an analogy is helpful:

Imagine an economy with just one actor: Robinson Crusoe on an island. Crusoe loves fish, so he spends half of each day fishing so he can enjoy fish in the evenings. Additionally, Crusoe spends Friday mornings maintaining his fishing dinghy and nets. In order to have fish on Friday, he must fish for an extra hour every other day of the week. In economic terms, Crusoe has a savings rate of one hour per day. His savings rate is also his investment rate, or the percentage of present income he sets aside to maintain or increase future consumption.1

Crusoe doesn’t have a fridge, so he preserves his catch by throwing it in a small, dark pond. He can’t see how many fish are in the pond, so he keeps a stack of small rocks near it. Every time he adds a fish, he adds a rock, and every time he eats one, he removes one. The rocks are his money supply.

Suppose that Crusoe shares the island with some mischievous monkeys, who see Crusoe adding rocks to his pile. They decide to imitate him, so every time Crusoe ads a rock, they sneak in and add one as well. The monkeys are inflating the money supply by injecting currency into Crusoe’s investment fund.2

One day, Crusoe suddenly notices that his “savings rate” of fish is double the usual. He decides to compensate by eating some of the fish he catches during the “savings hour.” This is the consumption-side of the boom phase of the business cycle. Crusoe also decides to take some extra time each day to start building himself a new hut. This is the investment-side of the boom phase of the business cycle.

Crusoe now believes that the cost of saving fish is half the usual, while in fact his savings rate is too low for the investments he is planning.

Before long, Friday comes around. When it comes time to eat his midday meal, Crusoe suddenly realizes that he’s out of fish – despite having a surplus of rocks. He’s exhausted his investment capital because the additional currency snuck into his money supply did not represent a real increase in his productivity or savings rate. He doesn’t have the capital (fish) to maintain his previous consumption rate, much less increase it. He is forced to cut his investment rate (he must spend some of his Friday fishing) just to have some fish for Friday’s dinner. He must also abandon his incomplete hut because he does not have the time to finish it. The abandoned hut is an extravagant expenditure that represents a loss of capital.3 This is the bust phase of the business cycle.

To review, here’s the overall impact of the monkey’s trickery: Sunday-Friday, Crusoe catches the same number of fish, but consumes more, and therefore saves less. That’s the boom period. Friday, Crusoe consumes less fish, and spends less time for maintaining his nets (capital). Some of his investment/consumption time must now be spent in production. That’s the bust period. If Crusoe’s initial savings rate allows him to just break even each week 4, his nets will gradually get worse and worse and he will eventually go hungry.5

Notes

  1. Crusoe prefers to enjoy his fish sooner rather than later, but he is willing to put aside some of his catch to get more fish later. The discount he gives to eating a fish Friday is his time preference, or his originary interest rate. (To that, he adds the risk that the fish will spoil by Friday to get the market or “real” interest rate.)
  2. As long as the monkeys keep contributing one stone for every fish, Crusoe can account for their trickery. But if the monkeys are unpredictable, it will be impossible for Crusoe to set the proper savings rate.In the real world, the originary interest rate reflects the average time preference of all savers. If someone starts monkeying around with the interest rates, it becomes impossible for investors (or the monkeys at the Fed) to know what the real rate of savings is even if they know that the rate is being manipulated.
  3. That abandoned hut represents investments which exceed the ability of the actual savings rate to complete. The resources it takes to build compete with worthwhile investments (such as repairing the fishing nets) by raising the prices for all capital. Ridiculous business models and sky-high salaries during the dot-com boom, as well as over-extended sub-prime mortgages likewise compete with legitimate business models, salaries, and mortgages. Manipulating the money supply makes it difficult to distinguish bad investments from good ones, so no one can escape the inevitable crunch.
  4. That is, zero net profit, an equilibrium rate of savings, or “the evenly rotating economy” in Mises’ terminology.
  5. Suppose Crusoe decides to ignore his hunger and work on his nets all Friday. In other words, he trades current production (and therefore consumption) for higher future consumption (that is, economic growth). If he does so voluntarily, there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s nothing inherently more desirable or efficient in spending some of one’s time starving just to increase future production (that is, in valuing economic growth over present consumption.) Note that the longer Crusoe delays the shift back to production, the more severe the miss-allocation of resources (and his hunger) becomes. The monkey’s trickery does not actually make Crusoe to become a better saver – he is more likely to start saving less because of uncertainty over the future.

Further reading

11 Comments

Filed under Economics