Have you heard that the economy is like a car? It’s the most popular analogy in financial reporting and political discourse. The American people are repeatedly told by financial pundits and politicians that consumption is an “engine” that “drives” economic growth because it makes up 70% of GDP. One notable Nobel-winning economics pundit with a penchant forbizarre growth theories even recently noted that an economy can be “based on purchases of yachts, luxury cars, and the services of personal trainers and celebrity chefs.” Conversely, other economists including Nobel-winner Joseph Stiglitzclaim that our economy is stuck in “first gear” due to inequality: too much income is concentrated among too few rich people who tend to save larger share of their income and thus have a lower “marginal propensity to consume”. The Keynesian message is clear: if you want to put the economic pedal to the metal, get out there and consume!
Not so fast, Speed Racer. The systematic failure by Keynesian economists and pundits to distinguish between consuming and producing value is the single most damaging fallacy in popular economic thinking. This past Christmas, we produced a playful video called “Deck the Halls with Macro Follies” exploring the history of this popular myth. If the economy were a car, consumer preferences would surely be the steering wheel, but real savings and investment would be the engine that drives it forward.
A History of Macro Follies
The historical record on economic growth conflicts with this consumption doctrine. Economic growth (booms) and declines (bust) have always been led by changes in business and durable goods investment, while final consumer goods spending has been relatively stable through the business cycle. Booms and busts in financial markets, heavy industry and housing have always been leading indicators of recession and recovery. The dot-com boom and bust, the Great Depression and our current crisis all exhibit the pattern.
For example, during our past two decades of booms and busts, investment collapsed first, bringing employment down with it. Consumption spending actually increased throughout the 2001 recession (financed, in part, by artificially easy credit) even as employment was falling along with investment. During our continuing crisis, consumption spending returned to its all-time high in 2011–yet investment to this day remains at decade lows, producing the worst recovery in growth and employment since the Great Depression. Labor force participation hasn’t been this low since the 1980s. But why?
As John Stuart Mill put it two centuries ago, “the demand for commodities is not the demand for labor.” Consumer demand does not necessarily translate into increased employment. That’s because “consumers” don’t employ people. Businesses do. Since new hires are a risky and costly investment with unknown future returns, employers must rely on their expectations about the future and weigh those decision very carefully. As economic historian Robert Higgs’ pioneering work on the Great Depression suggests, increased uncertainty can depress job growth even in the face of booming consumption. As recent years have demonstrated, consumer demand that appears to be driven by temporary or unsustainable policies is unlikely to induce businesses to hire.
The past several decades in America have been marked by a collapse of real savings encouraged by artificially easy credit from the Fed, along with explosive growth in government spending. All these combined to bring about a debt-fueled spending binge, with disastrous consequences.
Increased investment drives economic growth, while retrenched investment leads to recession and reduced employment–and it always has. Those who blame our stagnation on a lack of consumer demand rely on a toxic brew of dubious data and dangerous theory.
Before I Can Consume, I Must Produce for Others
By definition, GDP is a summary of final sales for new goods and services and not of all economic activity. Raw materials, intermediate goods and labor costs, which comprise the bulk of business spending are not treated in GDP, but are rather rolled up in the final sale price of the “consumer” spending. Only capital equipment, net inventory changes and purchase of newly constructed homes constitute “investment” according to GDP. This framing of the data makes the “consumption drives the economy” a foregone conclusion. But this is circular reasoning.
Where do these “consumers” get their money to spend? Before we can consume, we need to produce and earn a paycheck. And paychecks have to flow to productive — that is value-creating — behavior, or value is simply being transferred and destroyed. Our various demands as consumers are enabled by our supply as workers/producers for others. That’s the classical “Law ofMarkets”, often referred to as Say’s Law, in a nutshell.
For employees, those paychecks are income, but for the employers, wages represent most business’ single largest expense. Yet GDP does not treat employee wages or materials as “investment spending” — even though any business owner regards salaries as the most important and largest investment that they make. Instead, employee wages appear in GDP data as consumption when income is spent on final goods like food, clothing, gadgets, and vacations. Moreover, since GDP is an accounting summary, it adds consumption and investment spending together. But this summarizing masks the fact that these two activities are actually in opposition in the short run. In order to invest more today, we have to save more and consume less. As a result, GDP in-and-of-itself reveals nothing about what grows an economy; at best, it demonstrates how large the economy is and whether it’s growing or shrinking.
Digging below the surface of GDP reveals a structure of value-adding production far more complex than the simplistic analysis given by most media reports. According to government data, more than 70% of Americans earn their incomes from employment in domestic business. Yet the retail sector of our economy, for example, only contributed 6% of GDP. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data on employment show that only about 11% of employed Americans work in “sales and related occupations”. That leaves a great deal of economic activity and employment to the “business to business” sector, which composes most of the real economy.
Most of the value-adding activities occurred between a vast structure of businesses and workers starting with raw materials and blueprints and coming together over months (sometimes years when R&D is included) before a final sale can be made. At each stage, the activity is funded not by current “consumer spending” but through a combination of new investment and savings such as each company’s reinvested earnings. The farther from a final good a business’s output is, the more it relies on credit markets and the more it is subject to distortions on the savings and investment side. And since employment is spread across this time structure with relatively few working in final retail stage, savings and investment changes have dramatic impacts on employment.
My wife Lisa and I have personal experience with dynamics that the top-down Keynesian view ignores. Several years ago we launched a side-business designing, manufacturing and selling reusable all-in-one cloth diapers to moms interested in saving money and cutting down on trash. We called them “weehuggers”.
To start the business, we got a small capital contribution from my brother-in-law in exchange for equity in the company. These savings were put to use buying the raw materials, designing the diaper prints, hiring sets of skilled people both to sew the diapers and to build the website. Designing, testing and producing the product and website took over a year. Almost none of that activity was included in GDP for that year, except through the “consumer spending” of people we paid. Throughout this stage, no “product” existed for others to demand or for us to sell and generate income. The time Lisa and I spent building the company was also a very real form of investment itself. This so-called “sweat equity” is just as much of an investment as a financial contribution.