"Saving" ≠ "Saving Resources"*

Many economists — mostly the freshwater/neoclassical/supply-side/conservative types, but also many on the left — hold in their heads a very peculiar model of how economies work. It’s a model of a barter/real-goods economy in which money only plays the role of convenience.

In this model, if you don’t eat some portion of the corn you grew this year, you’ve “saved.” You can eat it next year. Makes perfect sense.

You can see this thinking played out in Scott Sumner’s justification for consumption taxes:

I’d tax people on the basis of how many resources they consume, or take out of society, not what they produce.

He describes the opposite approach — taxing returns on financial investments or “savings” — as “morally grotesque.”

Now let’s think about this, and think about how these economists think about this. They’re assuming that if you “save” (a.k.a. don’t spend), you don’t “consume resources.” You “save” them, and don’t “take them out of society.”

This makes absolutely no sense. If you forego a massage this week, or wait a few years to get your house painted, is the labor for that massage or paint job “saved”? How about this year’s sunlight — the ultimate source of that labor power? Can you use it next week, or next year? Understand: services comprise 80% of U.S. GDP. And that’s before you even think about Apple and similar, with their just-in-time, on-demand supply chains — when you buy it, and only when you buy it, they produce it.

If you don’t buy it, it doesn’t get produced.

And if you don’t buy it, and they don’t expect you to buy it soon, they don’t invest to build the capacity needed to produce more in the future. (That investment and real-capacity building is true “national saving.” S really is I.)

That mental model, which is so widely prevalent, is a fundamental error of composition: confusing the individual with the aggregate. (And a confution of money-saving and real saving.) Sure, you’ve saved money for your (or your great-grandchildren’s) future. And when you don’t get a massage, others can sign up for that time slot, or buy a massage for a lower price. This is about competition among individuals, not how many resources we as a society produce and consume. If we all consume less, as a society we produced (and “save”) less — both for current consumption and for future production.

So in a very real (dynamic) sense, it’s the savers who are “taking resources out of society.” (And in a somewhat abstract sense, you can imagine those foregone resources being stored, hoarded, and rendered impotent in ever-growing and largely inert Cayman-island bank accounts.)

This is not really revelatory; I know these economists understand the paradox of thrift. But they ignore and eschew it in their real-good, barter-based mental economic models. I would suggest that the explanation for this error of composition is revealed by Scott’s words: “morally grotesque.” Moralistic beliefs about how individual humans should behave make it impossible for many economists to embrace an aggregate economic reality of which they are fully cognizant.

* Yes: non-renewable natural resources are consumed when people produce, buy, and consume stuff (both goods and services). But 1. Compared to human effort, those resources constitute a small part of the inputs to GDP, and 2. this is not what economists who are subject to this thinking are talking about. All those in-ground resources are not counted as existing “capital” in the national accounts, for instance — so they can’t be depleted from those accounts — and the accounted “cost” of those resources consists almost entirely of the cost of digging them up. This is the subject for another post.

Cross-posted at Asymptosis.