Getting Say’s Law right is hard

This is an article on the great economist, Leland Yeager, who has just passed away. And in this article in memoriam, Market Grandmaster by James A. Dorn, there is a discussion on Say’s Law which is dangerously off centre as has been virtually every discussion since the publication of The General Theory in 1936. Here is what is right taken directly from the article: “there can be no problem of deficiency of aggregate demand”. That is precisely what Say’s Law means. To this principle there are no exceptions. But what is said is that “fundamentally” there can be no deficiency of demand, but that it does occur on some occasions. To accept an exception, especially this, you might as well be a Keynesian.

Say’s Law did not rule out recessions. The idea that classical economists had some principle that made recessions impossible is so loony it’s hard to understand how such an idea could ever have established itself, yet that is what Keynes did. Therefore, to refute Keynes, one must begin by showing how untrue this was. Say’s Law rules out only one thing. It rules out, and rules out absolutely, demand deficiency as a cause of recession but nothing else, and most especially recessions due to monetary disturbances which were recognised by classical economists as frequent and often devastating. The classical theory of the cycle, stretching back to the start of the nineteenth century, discussed monetary breakdown and their effects. Monetary disturbances are not a deficiency of demand but a structural deformation. The GFC was not caused by a deficiency of demand but a monetary disturbance. Nor did a public sector stimulus in any economy lead to recovery, which might have occurred had demand deficiency been the problem. The contour and causes of the GFC were not just consistent with the classical theory of recession, but so too was the failure of any recovery to gather momentum anywhere in the world. This description mis-states the conclusions reached by classical economists, which we now bundle together under the heading of Say’s Law.

When the supply of and demand for money do not mesh, monetary disequilibrium can upset the smooth operation of the market mechanism and Say’s Law must be qualified. This is especially true when price and resource adjustments are sluggish.

To describe this as a qualification to Say’s Law is simply wrong, but worse, concedes almost all the ground that Keynesians need to drive public spending upwards, and not just during recessions but in every phase of the cycle.

Here is Dorn’s text on Say’s Law.

Say’s Law Is Fundamentally Right

According to Yeager (1979), “There has been too much aggregation in macroeconomics, theoretical and applied—too much of the notion of aggregate demand confronting aggregate supply. Fundamentally, Say’s Law is right: supply of some goods and services constitutes demand for other goods and services; fundamentally there can be no problem of deficiency of aggregate demand.” However, “the exchange of goods and services against goods and services takes place through money.” When the supply of and demand for money do not mesh, monetary disequilibrium can upset
the smooth operation of the market mechanism and Say’s Law must be qualified. This is especially true when price and resource adjustments are sluggish.

Consequently, Yeager emphasized that students need “to understand the tremendous importance of money in facilitating exchange and thus in facilitating the division of labor in producing
the goods to be exchanged.” In particular, they need to recognize that “money facilitates economic calculation and the comparison of costs and benefits and the signaling function of price and
profit” (ibid.).

Yeager: Market Grandmaster

Yeager goes on to argue that it is “precisely because money is so important to the working of the economic system [that] monetary disorders can have fateful consequences.” Thus, there is a “hitch in Say’s Law: Although ‘fundamentally’ goods and services exchange against goods and services, money is the intermediary in this process; and if the demand for and supply of money get out of balance, these fundamental exchanges are impeded” (ibid.).

Yeager elaborated on this idea elsewhere, explaining that an

imbalance between the actual quantity of money and the total of desired cash balances cannot readily be forestalled or corrected through adjustment of the price of money on the market for money because money, in contrast with all other things, does not have a single price and single market of its own. Monetary imbalance has to be corrected through the roundabout and sluggish process of adjusting the prices of a great many individual goods and services (and securities). Because prices do not immediately absorb the full impact of the supply and demand imbalances for individual goods and services that are the counterpart of an overall monetary imbalance, quantities traded and produced are affected also. Thus, the deflationary process associated with an excess demand for money, in particular, can be painful [Yeager 1983: 307].

Still more on Say’s Law and Austrian economics

The debate on the Coordination Problem website continues but see here, here and here for the prior discussion. Personally, but what do I know, those on the attack have ground to a halt, with these the latest posts:

Oh, my. Where to begin?

Kates says that Say’s Law emerged out of the general glut debate. A debate requires two sides. So there were economists who advocated “Keynesian-type solutions.” Sismondi, to name just one.

Kates fails to distinguish between long-run (equilibrium) and short-run (dynamic) propositions in classical political economy. JS Mill and many other classicals had a dynamic theory of economic crises. Barkley’s characterization is on the mark.

Then there is the problem of fifty years of missing economic history. Economists on the eve of the Keynesian Revolution were not classical economists, but neoclassicals. They were Austrians, Walrasians, Marsahllians, etc. so, Haberler was an Austrian, not a classical economist.

By the time of the GT, Keynes had an embarrassingly large number of precursors for Stimulative fiscal policy. Indeed, Keynes was a latecomer. The Chicago School was a hotbed of such policies. Friedman explains that Chicago was inoculated to Keynesian economics because of that.

In The New Economics and the Old Economists, J. Ronnie Davis details the pre-Keynesian origins of what we call Keynesian policy. Rothbard details how many economists supported pump-priming under Hoover and later under FDR. All before the General Theory. Ditto Steve Horwitz’s work on Hoover.

Fisher represented another strand of thought. His debt deflation theory of the cycle is one in which a fall in nominal values has real effects. The obvious solution is reflation. The issue is not whether Fisher was correct, but that there were many, many demand-driven policies to cure recessions before Keynes.

Kates seems to just leave out any ideas that do not fit his thesis. Other ideas are simply fitted onto his Procustean bed.

Posted by: Jerry O’Driscoll | July 19, 2015 at 09:51 PM

First let me thank Jerry O’Driscoll for dealing with some matters I would have otherwise. I agree in full with his remarks.

On Steve’s post before that, two things. One is that he is like Keynes in way overstating the importance of Say’s Law. It was never the “foundation of economic theory,” although maybe J.S. Mill thought it was.

The second is that Steve embarrassingly botches his discussion of Smith’s view. I think one can indeed find a variation of Say’s Law in WoN, but this is a joke. Productive versus unproductive labor has nothing to do with the idea of value added, beyong the trivial point that if something does not add value it does not add value, duh. In fact, Smith’s focus on material production was later carried over by Marx, and one could find this distinction between productive and unproductive labor in Soviet income and product accounts, although it might be useful in regard to rent seeking. As it is, one can easily imagine a “menial servant” providing valuable input even into a material production process. This whole thing is silly and has Kates making Smith look silly. Yikes!

On the later post, sorry, Steve, you do not remember your history. We debated this matter on the internet before your first book was out, and I told you then about Say’s views. But, this is just trivial and boring.

You continue to avoid the main arguments by both Mill and Keynes about the sources of macro fluctuations, which focused on financial crises and collapses of capital investment, not shortfalls of consumption. While Keynes ridiculed what he called Say’s Law and defended the possibility of general gluts, that was not really the focus of his theory, which had more to do with the collapse of animal spirits of business people.

Your efforts to dismiss Say simply look ridiculous. In fact, his examples against the law were already in his first edition. You have trouble reading, don’t you, for such a great scholar of Say. But we already know how worthless Say was and can ignore him, especially given that he actually supported government spending on public works projects during the downturn after the end of the Napoleonic wars.

Again, I am not going to bother arguing with you about the many cases where most economists would say that there was an increase in aggregate demand that pulled the economy out of a slump as we have already seen what you will say, which is simply to declare everything that happened that had any effect to be supply side.

I am glad, I guess, to see that you thought maybe something might be done by government to help get out of the Great Recession, although it would appear that you wish to get all worked up again about public spending that involves “value added” versus that which is not. Yeah, sure, pretty much everybody would prefer to see productive public spending on useful infrastructure or whatever rather than the old joke Keynes digging holes in the ground and filling them up again, although I suspect you have either forgotten or did not know what that famously repeated-out-of-context quote was really about.

And as for your big final question, why should anybody care and of what importance is it? Sorry, none, although I am not going to argue with your claim that it was Fred Taylor who first coined it, woo woo woo.

Posted by: Barkley Rosser | July 20, 2015 at 02:14 AM

BTW, I shall agree with Steve Kates that Ricardo’s discussion in the general glut debate does look somewhat Austrian in his emphasis on misdirected production that needs to be reallocated, and I have said that in a forthcoming paper on “History of Economic Dyhamics” to appear in the Handbook of the History of Economic Analysis and currently available on my website.

I should also say that while Jerry identifies Haberler as an Austrian, he is sort of as Schumpeter was. His great book is very eclectic and even handed in its accounting of many views, many of which have been forgotten even though quite interesting and worthy of reconsideration.
Posted by: Barkley Rosser | July 20, 2015 at 02:20 AM

It is hard to gauge where I stand since no neutral has bought in to indicate what they think themselves. Anyway, here is my reply to Barkely. I will reply to Jerry after.

Essentially, Barkley, what you have done is call the classical theory of the cycle “Keynesian” and declared victory. If I really do have to demonstrate that Keynes was trying to show that demand deficiency was the cause of recession, we are at such a primitive level of debate that it is almost impossible for me to work out where we can find some kind of solid ground on which we can agree so that we can work out between us where our differences lie.

This making it up as you go along version of Keynes is quite astonishing. Do you really believe that “while Keynes ridiculed what he called Say’s Law and defended the possibility of general gluts, that was not really the focus of his theory, which had more to do with the collapse of animal spirits of business people”? Here is what Keynes actually argued and right at the start of the book as he is trying to give an overview of what is to come:

“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.” (GT: 32)

I think Keynes in this instance is absolutely right about the nature of economic theory right up to his own time. The General Theory is about deficient aggregate demand and designed to refute Say’s Law. For you not to know this you must somehow have avoided the Keynesian-cross diagram, leakages and injections, IS-LM, AS-AD along with Y=C+I+G, versions of which may be found in every single Samuelson clone and which are still taught to just about everyone. If what you call “Keynesian” is some package of inferences from the later chapters of The General Theory that ignore what you can find at the front, well feel free to go on with your private understanding of what Keynes really meant, but it is not the Keynesian theory that now disfigures virtually every first-year macro text in the world, nor the one that informs policy.

And as for ignoring what Keynes thought was the cause of the recession of his own time, he is perfectly clear about it in the GT:

“The post-war experiences of Great Britain and the United States are, indeed, actual examples of how an accumulation of wealth, so large that its marginal efficiency has fallen more rapidly than the rate of interest can fall in the face of the prevailing institutional and psychological factors, can interfere, in conditions mainly of laissez-faire, with a reasonable level of employment and with the standard of life which the technical conditions of production are capable of furnishing.

“It follows that of two equal communities, having the same technique but different stocks of capital, the community with the smaller stock of capital may be able for the time being to enjoy a higher standard of life than the community with the larger stock; though when the poorer community has caught up the rich — as, presumably, it eventually will — then both alike will suffer the fate of Midas.” (GT: 219)

I know this is dead set stupid, and not at all like the sophisticated arguments of Mill, but if you are going to defend Keynes, this is what you must defend. “The fate of Midas” is, of course, a situation where everyone is so wealthy that they stop buying and save instead. This is why Keynes thought the world had gone into depression, because he sure wasn’t discussing the 1920s, or at least not the “roaring ‘20s” of the United States.

That you disdain the need for spending to be value adding is quite clarifying so far as this exchange of views is concerned. You do represent a modern view of what Keynesian policy makers believe. You do not think that such expenditure has to be value adding to lead to faster growth and employment. Economists have, indeed, been taught that spending on anything at all will add to growth and employment. And you say this even with the labour market in the US as moribund as it is, where the only reason for the fall in the unemployment rate is the even faster fall in the participation rate.

The economics of John Stuart Mill is so superior to this unbelievable nonsense that you make every effort you can to associate your views with Mill’s while disassociating yourself from what Keynes really wrote. And it is no wonder why, because what Keynes wrote is such nonsense. But it is this Keynesian theory that has informed the Keynesian policies that were tried 2009-2011, which are now being abandoned. There is a need for policy guidance that will explain to policy makers what needs to be done, since they certainly cannot find any such thing in our modern Keynesian-saturated texts. But they could find it in Mill, if they only knew enough to look.

At this stage, all I can hope is that some of those who pay attention can see the point, or at least that there is a point. It is beyond me how anyone can continue to defend modern textbook theory when it never delivers what it promises. But in this instance, the notion that Keynes was really arguing some dynamic theory of adjustment, that is, arguing what Mill had been arguing, and not trying to overturn Say’s Law is just ludicrous. But since no one knows any history any more, what someone might end up believing is anyone’s guess.

Even more on Say’s Law and Austrian economics

The debate on the Coordination Problem website continues but see here and here for the prior discussion. The following three posts have just been put up.

Hayek detailed the influence of classical political economists on his theory of the business cycle. See the 1st chapter of Prices and Production. Many predecessors are mentioned, just not Say.

In Economics as a Coordination Problem, I suggest that Say is relevant. But it is Say’s theory of the entrepreneur that is relevant.
Posted by: Jerry O’Driscoll | July 18, 2015 at 08:35 PM

James Mill did not use the term “Say’s Law,” preferring the “Law of Markets,” but he and Say corresponded and they each cited the other in their works.
Posted by: Barkley Rosser | July 18, 2015 at 11:17 PM

In the WN, Adam Smith argued that “parsimony” was the immediate cause of “the increase of capital.” That is an ex ante version of what came to be known as Say’s Law.
“What is annually saved is as regularly consumed as what is annually spent, and nearly in the same time too.” In other words, the supply of savings constitutes the demand for investment.
Even earlier, there are statements by the Physiocrat, Mercier de la Rivière, that anticipate Say’s Law. And so on.
Posted by: Jerry O’Driscoll | July 18, 2015 at 11:55 PM

Again it is Barkley Rosser who sticks to the issues to whom I focus my reply.

It is not a little odd to be instructed by Barkley Rosser that James Mill and J.B. Say corresponded and cited each other’s works. I have written one book, many articles, and brought together two collections of writings on Say’s Law, including a five volume set on everything written on Say’s Law through until the year 2000. Of course James Mill didn’t use the term “Say’s Law”. The phrase wasn’t even invented until the twentieth century. That he discussed “le loi des débouchés” (the law of markets) is different since that is the name he applied himself. That still doesn’t answer where Keynes came up with the term Say’s Law since that is from F.M.Taylor (1921). Those who think they know the story of how Keynes went from the Treatise (1930) to The General Theory (1936) typically ignore this very inconvenient fact.

Say’s Law does not mean “goods buy goods”. What Say’s Law means is that demand deficiency (overproduction) does not cause recessions and therefore a demand stimulus is never the remedy. Everyone once knew that goods bought goods – see the second paragraph of the introduction to Book II of The Wealth of Nations where it is spelt out with perfect clarity.

For an indubitably Austrian perspective on Say’s Law, let me then direct you to Murray Rothbard in an article specifically titled “Say’s Law of Markets”. It is mostly right but Rothbard is unfortunately caught up in the trap of thinking that Say’s Law was originated by Say, or worse, that Say explains it properly. But here he is absolutely on the money as he is on most of the rest in his article:

“Essentially Say’s law is a stern and proper response to the various economic ignoramuses as well as self-seekers who, in every economic recession or crisis, begin to complain loudly about the terrible problem of general ‘overproduction’ or, in the common language of Say’s day, a ‘general glut’ of goods on the market.”

And please take note of the technical term he uses, “economic ignoramuses”. I understand the exasperation, especially in the face of yet another massive failure of policy in the various Keynesian stimulus packages that followed the GFC.

That no one gets it is as normal, but perhaps, by pulling Murray Rothbard into the mix, there might be some recognition that Say’s Law has a legitimate Austrian pedigree.

More on Say’s Law and Austrian economics

The conversation on Say’s Law continues at The Coordination Problem website. These were posted following my own post yesterday. Neither of the posts are anything other than assertions with no actual text references, but they do raise issues that are raised all the time. But the second, from Barkley Rosser, gets into the issues that truly matter.

Actually, Hayek viewed Say’s Law as an equilibrium concept. He argued it did not hold in a monetary economy because money allows there to be demand without supply. One could say the denial of Say’s Law in a monetary economy undergirds Hayek’s monetary theory of economic fluctuations.

It is not clear that the Law originated with Say. It already appears in the Wealth of Nations.

Then there is the question of whether Say changed his mind. In the fifth edition of the Treatise, never translated, Thomas Sowell argues that Say changed his mind about the Law.

Finally, Mill’s Fourth Fundamental Proposition Respecting Capital is at the heart of Hayek’s cycle theory. Hayek clarifies that in an Appendix to The Pure Theory of Capital. And I analyzed its relevance in Economics as a Coordination Problem. It is not a forgotten concept.

Posted by: Jerry O’Driscoll | July 18, 2015 at 02:43 PM

The quote that Kates provides from Mises is peculiar. It is clearly a criticism of Keynes, but aside from declaring that Keynes failed to disprove Say’s Law, he really provides no defense of it or how it fits into Austrian economics.

I am interested to see that Steve Horwitz basically that the main Austrians said very little about it, and one has to go such figures as Hutt to find much, with followups by Steve himself and some others.

I think Jerry is right that Hayek probably did not accept it in a monetary economy.

Mill took it very seriously and spent much time talking about it and relying on it in his arguments.

Regarding Say himself, he may have changed his mind on it, but from the very beginning he always recognized that it did not universally hold and gave various examples of how and when it might not hold, most of these involving people hoarding money for some reason or other, such as in the Ottoman Empire not to have to spend more on taxes if one engaged in conspicuous consumption, although one can find numerous quotes from him in various places where he certainly states some version of it. As it is, I think it was James Mill who coined the term and promoted it in the English literature, thus making it not too surprising that his son would also be an advocate of it, although I may be mistaken on this last point (and I accept that versions of it may well have been around earlier).

Posted by: Barkley Rosser | July 18, 2015 at 05:31 PM

Understanding Say’s Law may be as difficult an issue as it is possible to find in a world where every economist is taught Keynesian aggregate demand as their first approach to thinking about the nature of recession. Say’s Law is the essence of supply side economics. At the aggregate level, demand has absolutely no role to play. What demand there is originates with supply and can come from no other source. Public spending unbacked by real production is no more a stimulus than the printing of counterfeit money. I have therefore put up the following post:

The fact that this fundamental principle of pre-Keynesian economic theory is named “Say’s” Law has been one of the more damaging aspects of both the history of economics and of economic theory itself. Here is something to contemplate about the true origins of the Keynesian Revolution. The term “Say’s Law” was invented by Fred Manville Taylor and entered into common usage on the American side of the Atlantic in the 1920’s with the publication of Taylor’s Principles of Economics. How, it may be asked, did the term get into The General Theory? Say himself never understood Say’s Law properly. If you do want to understand it properly you need to go to John Stuart Mill and those among the classical school who followed after. J.E. Cairnes is the most accessible source.

Say’s Law states that you can never make an economy grow from the demand side. Mill’s version is a direct refutation of Keynesian economics: “demand for commodities is not demand for labour”. Mill and the classics said you could not make an economy grow by increased expenditure; Keynes said you could. All modern macro continues to argue that it can be done and is to that extent entirely Keynesian. That there is no real world evidence that increases in aggregate demand lead to increases in output and employment confirms in every instance a stimulus has been applied that Say’s Law is valid. If you would like to see my explanation in short form, you have my articles at the Liberty Fund to go to. If you would like to see the longer and more extended version, you could try the second edition of my Free Market Economics. I will just leave you with Ricardo’s reply to Malthus in the midst of the general glut debate (the first attempt to introduce “Keynesian” economics during the 1820s): “men err in their productions, there is no deficiency of demand”. This is the classical and Austrian theory of recession. There has been a disorganisation of markets that has led to recession and unemployment (that is, men have erred in their productions). The problem is not over-saving and a lack of aggregate demand.

Will anyone get it? It is such a frustration.

Say’s Law and Austrian economics

Peter Boettke at Coordination Problem links to the Liberty Fund discussion on the economics of John Stuart Mill under the heading, Mill > Keynes, so says Steven Kates. Very pleasing, but more pleasing are the two comments, very critical of what I wrote, that have been sent in by Barkley Rosser.

Kates is obsessed with Say’s Law, how it is true basically by definition. Mill’s view of macroeconomics is very sophisticated indeed, and Keynes notoriously undervalued the knowledge of his predecessors. But one very big difference is indeed over Say’s Law, which Mill accepted and Keynes did not. Given Kates’s strong views on this, of course he says Mill > Keynes, but, in fact, Say’s Law is not true in general, and Say himself knew it, as Kates has had pointed out to him on numerous occasions, but…
Posted by: Barkley Rosser | July 16, 2015 at 04:45 PM

BTW, now that it seems I can post here again after a long period of not being able to, let me add that I do not see anything particularly Austrian about Say’s Law. I just scanned a few books by Hayek and von Mises I have here in my office, and there was not a single mention of Say’s Law in any of them. I did find a mention of Say in Mises’s Socialism, but about whether or not Ricardo was right about gross versus net product. No Say’s Law.

I would suggest you all should not get yourselves too worked up about hanging your hats on Kates’s obsession, which he shares with the even more fanatical James Ahiakpor, whom those who follow HET know of. What is in it for you guys other than another way to bash Keynes?
Posted by: Barkley Rosser | July 16, 2015 at 04:53 PM

It’s as if criticising Keynes is some kind of thing in itself, and not one of the paramount economic issues of our time. Or that Say’s Law is not absolutely embedded in Austrian theory even if seldom mentioned. This is what I have replied:

It pleases me to see that Barkley Rosser has opened a second front on the issue of Say’s Law. And let me begin by noting where we agree, which is the absence of much discussion on Say’s Law among Austrian economists. But while there is not a lot, there is some, the most important one unfortunately going all the way back to 1950, in an article by Ludwig von Mises in The Freeman, “Lord Keynes and Say’s Law”. You can read the whole lot at this link but I will quote you the most relevant passage:

“The exuberant epithets which these admirers have bestowed upon his work cannot obscure the fact that Keynes did not refute Say’s Law. He rejected it emotionally, but he did not advance a single tenable argument to invalidate its rationale.

“Neither did Keynes try to refute by discursive reasoning the teachings of modern economics. He chose to ignore them, that was all. He never found any word of serious criticism against the theorem that increasing the quantity of money cannot effect anything else than, on the one hand, to favor some groups at the expense of other groups, and, on the other hand, to foster capital malinvestment and capital decumulation. He was at a complete loss when it came to advancing any sound argument to demolish the monetary theory of the trade cycle. All he did was to revive the self-contradictory dogmas of the various sects of inflationism. He did not add anything to the empty presumptions of his predecessors, from the old Birmingham School of Little Shilling Men down to Silvio Gesell. He merely translated their sophisms—a hundred times refuted—into the questionable language of mathematical economics. He passed over in silence all the objections which such men as Jevons, Walras and Wicksell—to name only a few—opposed to the effusions of the inflationists. . . .

“In fact, inflationism is the oldest of all fallacies. It was very popular long before the days of Smith, Say and Ricardo, against whose teachings the Keynesians cannot advance any other objection than that they are old.”

Say’s Law is at the heart of Austrian theory without most Austrians being fully aware of it. I have spent a good deal of effort trying to get Austrians more interested in Say’s Law as a means to explain the fallacies of Keynesian economics. I will merely here provide a link to my “Ludwig von Mises Lecture” of 2010, where I tried to show just how important Say’s Law is if classical economic theory – of which Austrian economics is the only modern manifestation – is ever again to become central to our understanding of the way in which an economy works. Just let me apologise in advance for the way in which I pronounce Mises’s name; at the time I had read much of what Mises had written, but by the nature of things, had never actually heard his name said by anyone else. It’s one of the problems being a lonely scholar way off on the other side of the globe. But as you will see, there is no denying my extremely high regard for both Mises and Hayek which I discuss early on.

Say’s Law and Austrian economics

I have for the first time come across an article that invokes Say’s Law exactly right. It has come up on the Mises Daily website, is by an economist by name of Patrick Barron and titled, Why Central Bank Stimulus Cannot Bring Economic Recovery. It has surprised me to see it since even though Say’s Law is at the heart of the classical theory of the cycle, Austrian economists have tended to ignore the single most important theorem in economics, I think because it is hardly mentioned by either Mises or Hayek. It is also a principle that predates what is Austrian about Austrian economics, going back to the earliest days of economics, first having been discussed by James Mill in 1808 and definitively stated in no uncertain terms by John Stuart Mill in 1848 following the general glut debate (1820-1848). So what does Barron say is the problem with the central bank stimulus?

They are following Keynesian dogma that increasing aggregate demand will spur an increase in employment and production.

Exactly so! The number of economists across the world who understand this is infinitesimal. Aggregate demand is so ingrained it is almost ineradicable. Even Austrian economists of the most pedigreed kind get this wrong. Not this time. And what’s more, he reminds us that this error is a product of Keynes and The General Theory. Say’s Law understood correctly states demand is constituted by supply. Here Barron points out just this very thing:

Keynes tried to prove that production followed demand and not the other way around. He famously stated that governments should pay people to dig holes and then fill them back up in order to put money into the hands of the unemployed, who then would spend it and stimulate production. But notice that the hole diggers did not produce a good or service that was demanded by the market. Keynesian aggregate demand theory is nothing more than a justification for counterfeiting. It is a theory of capital consumption and ignores the irrefutable fact that production is required prior to consumption.

I only wish it were all that irrefutable. In real life, it is refuted every time a Keynesian stimulus is tried. Amongst economists it is the most immovable of dogmas. But let us continue.

Central bank credit expansion is the best example of the Keynesian disregard for the inevitable consequences of violating Say’s Law. Money certificates are cheap to produce. Book entry credit is manufactured at the click of a computer mouse and is, therefore, essentially costless. So, receivers of new money get something for nothing. The consequence of this violation of Say’s Law is capital malinvestment, the opposite of the central bank’s goal of economic stimulus. Central bank economists make the crucial error of confusing GDP spending frenzy with sustainable economic activity. They are measuring capital consumption, not production.

Highlighted here is the difference between the market rate of interest (money) and the natural rate (things). Very nineteenth century but universally accepted by economists right through to 1936. Even Keynes made it central to his Treatise on Money, but that was in 1930 before he came across Malthus. Keeping the monetary side of the economy separate from the real side is crucial to even the most rudimentary understanding of how an economy works.

We must remember that the very purpose of central bank credit expansion is to trigger an increase in lending in order to stimulate the economy to a self-sustaining recovery. But this is impossible. At any one time there is only so much real capital available in society, and real capital cannot be produced by the click of a central bank computer mouse. As my friend Robert Blumen says, a central bank can print money but it cannot print software engineers or even cups of Starbucks coffee to keep them awake and working.

Me and his friend Robert should get together. I harangue my classes holding a $5 bill in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other and ask if they can see the difference. And you would be amazed how hard it is to see the difference, not then and there, but when it counts. Economists are forever pointing out how much money various businesses have stashed away in banks as if the existence of such money stocks is equivalent to a stock of unemployed labour or capital goods available for investment.

So we come to his conclusion, where he discusses not just the wasted effort through trying to stimulate demand by printing money, but the actual wilful ruining of economies by their sensationally misguided attempts to increase the level of spending:

The governments and central banks of the world are engaged in a futile effort to stimulate economic recovery through an expansion of fiat money credit. They will fail due to their ignorance or purposeful blindness to Say’s Law that tells us that money is the agent for exchanging goods that must already exist. New fiat money cannot conjure goods out of thin air, the way central banks conjure money out of thin air. . . . In fact rather than stimulate the economy to greater output, bank credit expansion causes capital destruction and a lower standard of living in the future than would have been the case otherwise.

It’s all insane, really, but what may be more demented than anything is the refusal of the mainstream to perhaps think about this standard macroeconomic theory of theirs. You know, insanity as in doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. As in thinking an increase in aggregate demand will lead to an increase in anything before there has been an increase in production.

Not for the first time do I suggest that anyone interested in Say’s Law and much else should pick up a copy of my Free Market Economics, although I would hold off at the moment for a couple of months. The copyedited manuscript of the second edition arrived via email just today so I will have a very intense week in front of me in going through it with a fine tooth comb. It will be out in September when you can then pick up the new improved edition for yourself.

Keynes versus Hayek once again

alex on keynes and hayek

I suppose that’s one way to look at it: Keynesian economics as a make-work project for anti-Keynesians. On the other hand, if the notion that digging holes to fill them in again doesn’t strike you as the epitome of an insane economic policy then what hope is there for any of us other than for the hole-digging and hole-filling industries, along with businesses in shovel and overalls production. But Alex does get the nature of Keynesian economics 100% right. It is just what Keynes recommended and Krugman to this day supports.

[My thanks to Robert for sending this along. How could I have missed it?]