Why focus on Say’s Law?

This was not written to me but I was copied in on the reply that was sent to Michael:


You asked about the article in the latest Quadrant by Steve Kates on “The Dangerous Return of Keynesian Economics – Five Years On”. On the use of “Keynesian” stimulatory policies, I think he is right to draw attention to their failures and the idea that budgetary action to stimulate demand works. This is apparent from recent and past experience, such as the failed Roosevelt policies in the 1930s cf to the Premiers plan of budgetary cuts, which helped get Australia out of the recession much more quickly than the US (I think I have written to you about this before). However, don’t forget that Keynes himself said at the time not to risk budget deficits and that he also changed his advice to Roosevelt ie Keynes did not in practice necessarily stick to his textbook (published I think in 1936, half way through the recession). It is amazing that Australia’s experience in the 1930’s is still said to reflect Keynesian “stimulatory” action: Rudd ran that line when he became PM and used it to justify his stimulatory policies during the GFC.

I prefer not to get involved in the Say’s law argument like Kates does [my bolding]. It is simpler, I think, to focus on what is the likely response of the private sector to budgetary stimulus action. As suggested, recent experience supports the view that it is not likely to result in any sustained increase in spending (ie there may be a temporary surge but not a lasting one). Treasury had to publish a correction to the budget papers about the claimed success. [But why didn’t it work?]

What about “stimulation” through monetary policy? The recent experience in the US and some other countries again suggests this doesn’t work. It may be claimed that it has worked in the sense that Bernanke may have prevented the US from going into recession. But what would have happened to interest rates if there had been no abnormal increase in the supply of money and the market had been allowed to determine interest rates without central bank intervention? My guess is that they would still have fallen to similar low levels because the private sector would not have been invited to finance additional spending by borrowing, just as it wasn’t under the Bernanke policy.

I have also written to you about what caused the GFC. I won’t venture further on that here other than to say that central banks allowed the supply of credit to increase at far too rapid a rate.

In his article Kates also includes a graph on the US unemployment rate calculated by including in it labour force drop outs since 2009 and showing that (on this basis) the rate has not fallen at all from the 11% reached in 2010. Kates uses this as one indication that the stimulatory policy in the US hasn’t worked. With press releases and letters I have been trying (unsuccessfully) to get across a similar message here and that the unemployment rate is not on its own an effective measure of the state of the labour market and the regulations thereof ie including drop outs our unemployment rate in Australia is much higher than the published one.

So my reply.

I much appreciate Des’ comments but if I might, would like to add my own perspective. And what is most important here is why I do dwell on Say’s Law which I do not just because it is the most accurate way of thinking about macroeconomic issues which I will come to in a moment. But why Say’s Law.

First, Say’s Law was Keynes’s own issue. The General Theory is written as a book-length refutation of Say’s Law which Keynes is at pains to show. The key passage in the General Theory so far as explaining Keynes’s intentions are found on page 32:

The idea that we can safely neglect the aggregate demand function is fundamental to the Ricardian economics, which underlie what we have been taught for more than a century. Malthus, indeed, had vehemently opposed Ricardo’s doctrine that it was impossible for effective demand to be deficient; but vainly. For, since Malthus was unable to explain clearly (apart from an appeal to the facts of common observation) how and why effective demand could be deficient or excessive, he failed to furnish an alternative construction; and Ricardo conquered England as completely as the Holy Inquisition conquered Spain. Not only was his theory accepted by the city, by statesmen and by the academic world. But controversy ceased; the other point of view completely disappeared; it ceased to be discussed. The great puzzle of Effective Demand with which Malthus had wrestled vanished from economic literature. You will not find it mentioned even once in the whole works of Marshall, Edgeworth and Professor Pigou, from whose hands the classical theory has received its most mature embodiment. It could only live on furtively, below the surface, in the underworlds of Karl Marx, Silvio Gesell or Major Douglas. [My bolding again]

The one innovation of The General Theory that remains embedded in all macroeconomics today is aggregate demand. The existence of aggregate demand as an independent force in economics was absolutely denied by pre-Keynesian economists. The denial was summarised in the propositions “demand is constituted by supply” and “overproduction is impossible” which were the specific meanings associated with Say’s Law, along with there is no such thing as a general glut. Demand deficiency, so far as classical economic theory is concerned, is never a realistic explanation for recession and therefore demand stimulation is never a solution for recessions when they come.

If you use aggregate demand in any context to explain anything about the state of the economy, in my view you have sold the pass. You can never recover since you have accepted Keynes’s basic premise to argue against Keynesian theory. And once you have done this, you really have no firm foundation that will allow you to turn back the Keynesian tide. In fact, if you think of aggregate demand as actually independent from aggregate supply, and therefore a force for raising the level of economic activity and employment, there is no reason not to apply a stimulus of some kind during recessions. It is only if you understand that such a stimulus cannot possibly work that you would oppose a stimulus as a set of actions that will certainty harm our economic prospects whatever brief relief it might do over the initial one or two quarters.

But there are other reasons for bringing Say’s Law into it. Because when I do, I am invoking the conclusions reached by all of the great economists of the past: David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, William Stanley Jevons, Alfred Marshall, Henry Clay and Allyn Young. This takes me across a period from 1820 through to 1928 and thus encompasses economists from the first days of economic theory through until almost the very day of publication of The General Theory. No economist of any stature denied the validity of Say’s Law until it was swept away by Keynes. Please see my Say’s Law and the Keynesian Revolution if you would like to go through the entire sordid story how Say’s Law disappeared from economic discourse.

But the theory is what’s important, and for this you would need to go to my Free Market Economics. Very hard to summarise but the two elements that make this kind of economic theory different are firstly the essential role of the entrepreneur and secondly the embedding of value adding into the very core of economic thinking.

The order in which everything occurs within an economy is that entrepreneurs come to conclusions about what they might produce and sell at a profit, then go through the many stages of setting up their businesses which requires a tremendous amount of outlay before they earn a single cent of positive return, and then, when the goods or services are brought to market, buyers may or may not choose to buy enough to repay all of the previous costs. Demand, to be strictly technical about it, is the relationship between price and quantity demanded for an existing product that is already on the market. All production, however, is future orientated and while past sales may provide some clues about what might sell in the future, it is hardly the most important consideration in the minds of entrepreneurs in trying to decide what they will do next. Governments wasting a tonne of money on pink batts and school halls is great in the short term for pink batt and school hall producers but distorts your economy away from productive activities, raises input costs across the economy and provides no clear direction about the nature of demand say eighteen months ahead. And because such activities were non-value-adding, the effect on employment at the going wage was certain to be negative as time went by.

As for Say’s Law here’s a brief outline.

1) If you pay some people to dig a hole and then pay other people to fill them in again nothing of value has been created so no matter how much money you pay them thinking only of this group there is nothing for them to buy.

2) Every form of economic activity uses up resources. All economic activity draws down on the available productivity of the economy. Keynesian economic theory thinks of the drawing down as in and of itself stimulatory. No classical economist would have been so stupid. Drawing down on resources – even in some activity that will eventually provide you with a positive return – makes you worse off. You have used up resources and are less wealthy than you had previously been.

3) The need for economic activity to be value adding is essential. Production is value subtracting. It uses up resources. When whatever is being produced finally becomes available, it is either just consumed or it becomes part of the productive apparatus of the economy. It is those additions to the productive parts of the economy that are the essential for growth and prosperity. Only if the value of what these newly produced capital assets is greater than the value of the resources that have been used up can the activity be counted as value adding. And only if the net effect of such investment has left behind an economy capable of producing more than it previous could do can one say that the economy has grown.

4) Only value adding activities create growth and employment over anything other than the short term. Timing is everything, but the flow of new productive assets coming on stream (and it may take years of value subtracting investment for any particular project to become productive) is the only thing that can make an economy more productive, raise living standards, add to employment at the going real wage and then, thereafter, increase the real wage.

5) Why Say’s Law? Amongst the many lessons that Say’s Law provides, and this is from the classics, is that “demand is constituted by supply”. Because of the low state of economic theory today, I now make it explicit what classical economists had meant, “demand is constituted by value adding supply”. Unless what is produced is value adding – that is, it adds more to output than the resources that have been used up in their production – then it cannot add to employment at the going real wage.

6) No stimulus program in the world was value adding and was ever likely to be. Virtually no government activity, other than some roads and a few infrastructure projects, is value adding. All draw down on resources but do not provide a net addition either in the short term or in the long. NBN is such a prime example, as is the Desal plant in Victoria. We are not better off for spending the money and using up the resources because there is no return above the costs. That the construction workers went out and bought goods and services with the money they were paid do not make those projects in any way beneficial to the economy. They are pure waste.

7) Private sector activity often misfires on an individual basis which is what bankruptcy is about. But a properly structured free enterprise economy, where financial institutions lend to the most promising projects for which funds (ie resources) are sought, provides you with the only structure that will provide an overall net rate of growth and an accumulation of capital assets across an economy that will build prosperity.

8) You want to understand what’s wrong with Keynesian economics, it offends against Say’s Law which makes it absolutely clear that only value adding activity adds to growth – demand is constituted by supply.

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