Okay Fine, Let’s Call Investment “Saving.” Or…Not

I really like Hellestal’s comment and linguistic take on this whole business:

I’m comfortable changing my language in order to communicate. I have very little patience for people who aren’t similarly capable of changing their definitions.

This discussion is really about the words we use to describe different accounting constructs. Nick totally gets that as well.

So I’m ready to say, “fine, let’s call investment saving.” That’s perfectly in keeping with the very sensible understanding found in Kuznets, father of the national accounts. He characterized real capital — the actual stuff we can use to create more stuff in the future — as “the real savings of the nation.” (Capital in the American Economy, p. 391.)

So when you spend money to produce something that has long-lived (and especially productive) value, you’re “saving.”

But still, I gotta wonder: why don’t we just call it…investment?

Because this S=I business confuses the heck out of everyone. Some of the smartest econobloggers on the web have spilled hundreds of thousands of words over the last several years trying to sort out this confusion. I’ve read most of them, and I’m still confused. And I’m quite sure that all non-economists who’ve looked at this (and many or even most economists) are as well.

And that’s not a surprise. Here are a few reasons why:

1. When you invest in real assets, you’re spending. That’s why it’s called investment spending. So spending = saving. Really?

2. When you pay someone to build you a drill press, you’re saving. When you don’t eat some of this year’s corn crop, you’re saving. When you pay off some of your money debt, you’re saving. When you don’t spend some of the money in your checking account, you’re saving. Each of these is true within a given (usually implicit) balance-sheet/income-statement accounting construct. But are they anything like the same thing?

3. As I showed in my last post, f you look at the “real” domestic private sector — households and nonfinancial businesses (most people’s implicit default context) — the amount of saving (income minus expenditures) has absolutely no relationship to the amount of investment spending. Saving is always insufficient to “fund” investment. And the changes in the two measures don’t move together, either in magnitude or direction. (Aside from the long, multi-decadal growth in both as the economy grows.)

4. When you “save” by investing, you decrease the amount of money on the left-hand (asset) side of your balance sheet, while increasing the amount of real assets on that tally. Your total assets are unchanged. Have you saved?

5. When you pay someone to write a piece of software, you get a long-lived real asset. You’ve saved. But the money you gave them is income for them, so it contributes to their (money) savings as well. Do you double-count those savings, or did “the economy” get that software for free?

6. Investment means “gross investment” — all the money spent on long-lived goods, including replacement of long-lived assets that have been consumed in the period (through use, decay, and obsolescence, and — for inventory of consumer goods — actual consumption). But in KuznetsWorld, shouldn’t we be talking about net investment — the additions to our stock of long-lived assets? Gross consumption minus consumption of fixed assets (and inventory changes)? Shouldn’t we call net investment “saving”?

I know: there’s (at least apparent) confusion in some of these, but that’s rather my point. And there are answers to all of these in the context of S=I. (All of them, I think, based on the flawed [neo]classical accounting constructs embodied in the NIPAs. That’s my next post.) I’ve read them all, every which way from Sunday. But do they help anybody understand how the economy works, or…quite the contrary? If they do, why do all those econobloggers feel the need to worry at this, constantly?

I’m not sure this really solves the problem, but I’d like to suggest that saving should mean what everybody in a monetary economy means when they use the word: money saving. Monetary income minus money expenditures. In dollars, or whatever. (And while we’re about it, when you take out a loan or spend out of your savings, let’s call those “borrowing” and “spending,” not “dissaving.”)

Meanwhile investment (in economics discussions) should mean what economists mean when they use the word: “spending to create fixed assets and inventory.” (Because the national accounts only count spending on structures, equipment, software, and inventory as investment.)

And actually, that’s what it already means.

Why do we need to call it saving?

Cross-posted at Asymptosis.