Part II: Stimulus Packages
Previously: Part I: Capital, Saving, and Our Economic Crisis
The Nature of Stimulus Packages
As was shown in Part I of this article, economic recovery requires greater saving and the accumulation of fresh capital, to make up for the losses caused by credit expansion and the malinvestment and overconsumption that follow from it. Yet the imposition of “stimulus packages” results in the further loss of capital. The Keynesians not only do not know this, but would not care even if they did know it.
Because of their ignorance of the role of capital in the economic system and resulting inability to see even the clearest evidence that suggests it, the Keynesians can conceive of no cause of a recession or depression but an insufficiency of consumption and no remedy but an increase in consumption. This is the basis of their calls for “stimulus packages” of one kind or another.
They assume that the economic system always has enough capital, indeed, that it is in danger of having too much capital, and that the problem is simply to get it to use the capital that it has. The way that this is done, they believe, is to get people to consume. Additional consumption will be the “stimulus” to new and additional production. When people consume, the products of past production are taken off the shelves and disappear from the stores. These products, the Keynesians believe, now require replacement. Hence, the shops will order replacement supplies and the manufacturers will turn to producing them, and thus the economic system will be operating again and recovery will be achieved, provided the “stimulus” is large enough.
The essential meaning of a “stimulus package” is the government’s financing of consumption, indeed, practically any consumption, by anyone, for almost any purpose, in the conviction that this will cause an increase in employment and production as the means of replacing what is consumed. Despite talk of avoiding wasteful spending and being “careful with the taxpayers’ money,” the truth is that from the point of view of the advocates of economic stimulus, the bigger and more wasteful the project, the better.
This was made brilliantly clear many years ago by Henry Hazlitt, who chose the example of government spending for a bridge. It is one thing, Hazlitt showed, if the government builds a bridge because its construction is necessary to facilitate the flow of traffic. It is a very different matter, he pointed out, if the government builds the bridge for the purpose of promoting employment. In the first case, the government wants the best bridge for the lowest possible cost, which implies the employment of as few workers as possible, both in the construction of the bridge and in the production of any of the materials that go into it.
In the second case, that of stimulating employment, the government wants a bridge that requires as many workers as possible, for their employment is its actual purpose. The greater the number of workers employed, of course, the greater must be the cost of the bridge.
Indeed, no one could be more clear or explicit concerning the nature of government “fiscal policy” and its “stimuli” than Keynes himself, who declared (on p. 129 of his General Theory) that “Pyramid building, earthquakes, even wars may serve to increase wealth, if the education of our statesmen on the principles of the classical economics stands in the way of anything better.”
Acts of sheer destruction, such as wars and natural disasters, appear as beneficial to Keynes and his followers for the same reason that the “stimulus” of government-financed consumption appears beneficial. This is because they too create a need for replacement and thus allegedly result in an increase in employment and production. So widespread is this view that one can very often hear people openly express favorable opinions about the alleged economic benefits of such things as earthquakes, hurricanes, and even wars.
Despite the fact that what the economic system needs for recovery is saving and the accumulation of new capital, to replace as far as possible the capital that has been lost, the effect of stimulus packages is further to reduce the supply of capital, and thus to worsen the recession or depression.
The reason that stimulus packages cause a further loss of capital is that their starting point is the consumption of previously produced wealth. That wealth is part of the capital of the business firms that own it. The stimulus programs offer money in exchange for this wealth and capital. But the money they offer does not come from the production of any comparable wealth by the government or those to whom it gives money—wealth which has had to be produced and sold and thus put into the economic system prior to the withdrawal that now takes place. The starting point for the government and its dependents is an act of consumption, which means a using up, a loss of previously existing wealth in the form of capital.
The supporters of stimulus packages look to the fresh production that is required to replace the wealth that has been consumed. It will require the performance of additional labor. They are delighted to the extent that this fresh production and additional employment materialize. They believe that at that point their mission has been accomplished. They have succeeded in generating new and additional economic activity, new and additional employment. The only shortcoming of such a policy, they believe, is that it may not be applied on a sufficiently large scale.
Unfortunately, there is something they have overlooked. And that is the fact that any fresh production and employment that results is incapable by itself of replacing the capital that was consumed in starting the process. The reason for this is that all production, including any new and additional production called into being by stimulus packages, itself entails consumption. And this consumption tends at the very least to approximate the fresh production and, indeed, is capable of equaling or even exceeding it.
Thus, for example, we start with the purchase and consumption of a new television set by someone who has not previously produced and sold anything of equivalent monetary value that provided the funds for his now buying the television set. He has simply received the money from the government. In this case, what we have is one television set withdrawn from the capital of the economic system and placed in the hands of a non-producing consumer.
We can assume, for the sake of argument, that the retailer of the television set will order a replacement set from the wholesaler, and that the wholesaler in turn will order a replacement set from the manufacturer. We can assume further that the manufacturer will now produce a new television set to replace the one that he sells to the wholesaler from his inventory.
The production of the replacement television set entails a using up of materials and components and part of the useful life of the plant and equipment required. Aspects of such using up of capital goods also take place on the part of the retailer and wholesaler and in the transportation of the television set.
Very importantly, any new and additional workers who may be employed—precisely the goal of the whole operation—in producing a new television set or in moving a television set through the channels of distribution must be paid wages, which they in turn will consume. The goods these workers receive when they spend their wages represents a further depletion of inventories, on the part of all the retailers with whom they deal. In addition, the various business firms involved have additional profits, or at least diminished losses, as the result of the various additional purchases. This enables their owners to consume more and probably results in the payment of additional taxes, which the government consumes.
Even whatever depreciation allowances are earned along the way in the various stages of replacing the television set are likely to be consumed. This is because in the context of a recession or depression investors are afraid of losses if they invest in private businesses and thus prefer to invest in short-term treasury securities, such as treasury bills, which they consider to be far safer. But when depreciation allowances are used to purchase treasury securities, they end up financing consumption rather than capital replacement. This is because the Treasury uses the proceeds from the sale of its securities to finance nothing but consumption, either that of the government itself or that of the private individuals to whom the government gives money.
The point here is that any replacement of a good consumed by a non-producer itself entails very substantial additional consumption of inventories and the useful life of plant and equipment of business firms. The same is obviously true of the replacement of goods that have simply been destroyed, whether by war or by an act of nature.
No matter how long the process of spending and respending of the funds introduced into the economic system by a stimulus package might continue—no matter how many instances of replacement production there might be following the purchase and consumption of our hypothetical television set or of any other such good—the initial loss of capital need never be made up.
This is because each act of replacement production is accompanied by corresponding additional consumption. Thus the initial act of consumption—or destruction—of wealth and capital may be followed by 10 or 100 acts of subsequent production, each carried on in order to replace the goods used up before it. But if each of these subsequent acts of production is accompanied by fresh consumption that is equivalent to it, the net effect is still one act of consumption. As a result, the supply of capital is reduced. For what is always present is X instances of production respectively following X+1 instances of consumption.
Now countries have suffered enormous losses of capital and yet still managed to recover and go on to new heights of wealth and prosperity. Germany and Japan in the decades following World War II are perhaps the most outstanding examples of this.
What enabled them to recover was not further acts of consumption, not “stimulus packages” of any kind, but increases in production in excess—substantially in excess—of increases in consumption. That is to say, it was a process of saving and capital accumulation that made their recovery possible. On average, people in those countries, in those years, saved and reinvested a major portion of their income, often in excess of 25 percent.
It is possible, but highly unlikely, that the replacement production induced by an initial consumption/destruction of wealth might itself entail some such new saving. If round after round of replacement production were in fact accompanied by some such saving, then, eventually, the original loss of capital would be made good. But that would be the case only if such saving was not offset by fresh acts of “stimulus” or other policies that waste or destroy capital.
However, as I say, such an outcome is highly unlikely. If for no other reason, this is because, as I have already pointed out, the stimulus packages take place in an environment in which investors fear to invest in private firms. As a result, they use not only whatever new and additional savings they might make, for the purpose of buying “safe” treasury securities but also even funds they earn that are required for the replacement of capital goods. In this way, savings are diverted into consumption rather than capital accumulation.
(It is ironic that while, if it did manage to occur and was not diverted into consumption, such saving might mitigate the effects of a stimulus package, it is attacked as undermining the process of recovery. Thus, for example, Paul Krugman, the 2008 Nobel Prize winner in economics, writes: “Meanwhile, it’s clear that when it comes to economic stimulus, public spending provides much more bang for the buck than tax cuts…because a large fraction of any tax cut will simply be saved.” New York Times, January 26, 2009, p. A23.)
In addition to the diversion into consumption of such new savings as might occur subsequent to a “stimulus,” there is the fact that the source of any such saving, namely, the net product produced, is likely to be greatly diminished. The net product is the excess of the product produced over the capital goods used up in order to produce it. It is what is available for consumption or saving out of current wage, profit, and interest income.
The net product is diminished to the extent that production is made to take place in accordance with methods requiring the employment of unnecessary capital goods per unit of output. Environmental and consumer product safety legislation provide numerous instances of this kind.
For example, requiring gas stations, dry-cleaning establishments, and many other types of businesses to substantially increase their capital investments merely in order to placate the largely groundless fears of the environmental movement. Similarly, requiring safety features in automobiles, dishwashers, display cases, ice machines, stepladders, and countless other goods—features that the market does not judge to be worth their cost—adds to the cost of the materials and components that enter into the production of products without increasing the perceived value of the products. In both instances, the result is a larger consumption of capital goods but no increase in production, and thus a reduction in the size of the net product produced and thus in the ability to engage in saving out of current income.
As indicated in Part I of this article, the effect of capital decumulation, whether caused by stimulus packages or anything else, is a reduction in the ability of the economic system to produce, to employ labor, and to provide credit, for each of these things depends on capital. The reduced ability to produce and employ labor may not be apparent in the midst of mass unemployment. But it will become apparent if and when economic recovery begins. At that point, the economic system will be less capable than it otherwise would have been, because of the reduction in its supply of capital. Real wages and the general standard of living will be lower than they otherwise would have been. And all along, the ability to grant credit will be less than it otherwise would have been.
Even though stimulus packages may be able to generate additional economic activity, they cannot achieve any kind of meaningful economic recovery. Their actual effect is the creation of a system of public welfare in the guise of work. That is in the nature of employing people not for the sake of the products they produce but having them produce products for the sake of being able to employ them.
But stimulus packages are much more costly than simple welfare. On top of the welfare dole that allows unemployed workers to live, stimulus packages add the cost of the materials and equipment that the workers use in producing their pretended products.
The work created by stimulus packages is a make-believe work that is carried on at the expense of the rest of the economic system. It draws products and services produced in the rest of the economic system and returns to the rest of the economic system little or nothing in the way of goods or services that would constitute value for value or payment of any kind. In other words, stimulus packages and the needless work they create cause the great majority of other people to be poorer. I’ve already shown how they cause them to have less capital. Shortly, I will show how they also cause them to consume less. (For elaboration on this point, please see the forthcoming republication of my article “Who Pays for `Full Employment’?”)
Rising Prices in the Midst of Mass Unemployment
If economic recovery is to be achieved, the first thing that must be done is to stop “stimulus packages” and undo as far as possible any that are already in progress. This is because their effect is to worsen the problem of loss of capital that is the underlying cause of the economic crisis in the first place.
Unfortunately, they are not likely to be stopped. If they are implemented, especially on the scale already approved by Congress, the effect will be a decumulation of capital up to the point where scarcities of capital goods, including inventories of consumers’ goods in the possession of business firms, start to drive up prices.
Higher prices of consumers’ goods will result not only from scarcities of consumers’ goods (which, of course, are capital goods so long as they are in the hands of business firms), but also from scarcities of capital goods further back in the process of production. Thus a scarcity of steel sheet will not only raise the price of steel sheet, but will carry forward to the price of automobiles via the higher cost of producing automobiles that results from a rise in the price of steel sheet. Likewise, a scarcity of iron ore will carry forward to the price of steel sheet, which, again, will carry forward to the price of automobiles. And, of course, the pattern will be the same throughout the economic system, in such further cases as oil and oil products, cotton and cotton products, wheat and wheat products, and so on.
A rise in the prices of consumers’ goods is capable of stopping further capital decumulation stemming from the stimulus packages. When the point is reached that additional funds spent on consumers’ goods serve merely to raise their prices, then no additional quantities of them are sold. The same quantities are sold at higher prices. This ends the decumulation of inventories. From this point on, the buyers who obtain their funds from the government consume at the expense of people who have earned their incomes but now get less for them.
Once inventories become scarce in relation to the spending for goods, all of the funds that the government has been pouring into the economic system become capable of launching a major increase in prices. This rise in prices can take place even in the midst of mass unemployment. This is because the abundance of unemployed workers does nothing to mitigate the scarcity of capital goods that has occurred as the result of the attempts to stimulate employment.
Even though rising prices can deprive stimulus packages of the ability to cause further capital decumulation, the inflation of the money supply by the government results in continuing capital decumulation. In large part, this occurs as the result of the fact that the additional spending resulting from a larger money supply raises business sales revenues immediately while it raises business costs only with a time lag. So long as this goes on, profits are artificially increased.
Despite the fact that most or all of the additional profits may be required simply in order to replace assets at higher prices, the additional profits are taxed as though they were genuine gains. This impairs the ability of firms to replace their assets. The destructive consequences of this phenomenon can be seen in the transformation of what was once America’s industrial heartland into the “rustbelt.”
At the same time, throughout the economic system, starting long before today’s stimulus packages and continuing on alongside them, regular, almost year-in, year-out government budget deficits do their work of destruction. They cause a continuing diversion into consumption not only of a considerable part of whatever savings might be made out of income but also of the replacement allowances for the using up of plant and equipment and all other fixed assets. Generations of government budget deficits have sucked up trillions of dollars of what would have been capital funds and have gone a long way toward turning America into an industrial wasteland.
The blind rush into massive “stimulus packages” is the culmination of generations of economic ignorance transmitted from professor to student in the guise of advanced, revolutionary thinking—the “Keynesian revolution.” The accelerating destruction of our economic system that we are now experiencing is the product of a prior destruction of economic thought. Our entire intellectual establishment has been the victim—the willing victim—of a massive intellectual con job that goes under the name “Keynesianism.” And we are now paying the price.
I say, willing victims of an intellectual con job. What other description can there be of those who were ready to hail as a genius the man who wrote, “Pyramid building, earthquakes, even wars may serve to increase wealth….”
Only a brave few—most notably Ludwig von Mises and Henry Hazlitt— stood apart from this madness, and for doing so, they were made intellectual pariahs. But the time is coming when it will be clear to all who think that it is they who have had the last word.
*Copyright © 2009, by George Reisman. George Reisman, Ph.D. is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996) and is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute. His web site is www.capitalism.net and his blog is www.georgereisman.com/blog/. A pdf replica of his book can be downloaded to the reader’s hard drive simply by clicking on the book’s title Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics and then saving the file when it appears on the screen. The book provides an in-depth, comprehensive treatment of the material discussed in this and subsequent articles in this series and of practically all related aspects of economics.