Ignore the Commentators, Consumption Really Doesn't Matter

Ignore the Commentators, Consumption Really Doesn't Matter
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In a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, columnist Justin Lahart wondered “If Americans don’t buy so many cars and trucks, will they buy other things instead?” Supposedly the answer to his question “could matter a lot to the economy.”

Lahart’s economic analysis is informed by the teachings of John Maynard Keynes.  Keynes believed that consumption was the driver of economic growth, and his teachings broadly inform the analysis of economists, along with most who write about economics.  But is it correct? Simple logic indicates that it isn’t.  Consumption really doesn’t matter

To understand why, readers need only consider the 2nd stage result of any individual decision to save at the alleged expense of consumption.  If those who choose not to consume deposit the money in a bank, their decision to save powers consumption every bit as much as it would if they chose to spend every dollar in their control.  That’s the case given the basic truth that banks don’t pay for deposits so that they can stare lovingly at the dollars deposited.  If they did, hoarding banks would soon be insolvent, acquired by another bank, or both. 

What this should remind readers is that no act of saving (short of hiding one’s extra disposable income in a safe) ever subtracts from consumption.  For an individual to save is for that individual to merely shift the ability to consume into the hands of someone else with near-term consumptive desires. 

What this ideally indicates to readers is that production is all that matters when it comes to economic growth.  If we’re producing we’re consuming.  Simple as that.  The only non-question from there is whether we’re producing with an eye on our own near-term consumption, or with an eye on saving that will boost the consumption of others who access our savings.  It’s a non-question simply because it amounts to a distinction without a difference.

Applied to Lahart, correct analysis by the consumption-focused columnist would concern the removal of barriers to the very production that powers all demand.  If so, Lahart might note that taxes are a price or penalty placed on work that have the potential to shrink one’s desire to produce.  The columnist would also logically cast an eye toward regulations that don’t achieve much (see: banking, 2008), but that distract those engaged in the production of goods and services. 

Taking this further, trade is the purpose of all production.  We produce so that we can get what we don’t have, so tariffs amount to a tax on the production that powers all consumption.  Lastly, Lahart might check the stability of the unit that facilitates consumption; in our case the dollar.  If it’s floating without definition, it’s less useful as a medium of exchange; thus rendering trade less likely.  In short, those desirous of more production would logically seek the reduction or removal of the tax, regulatory, trade and monetary barriers that lay a wet blanket on the production that is the source of all economic growth. 

They should also ignore consumption simply because consuming is the easy part.  What we call an economy is just individuals producing with an eye on getting.  As human beings our wants are endless.  That’s why we produce in the first place. 

Back to Lahart, his column assumes that if Americans just purchase enough cars, that the economy will be just fine.  He adds that if they don’t, the economy will be weak unless they “buy other things instead.” His analysis misses the essential 3rd stage result of saving; one that trumps the 2nd stage by a mile.  

Interesting about all this is that while Lahart confidently asserts that the purchase of cars will power growth, he blithely ignores that we only have quality cars to buy thanks to the decision of producers long ago to forego consumption in favor of investment.  Lest we forget, no less than Wilbur Wright believed as the 20th century dawned that cars would never be broadly owned owing to their extreme unreliability.  In that case, thank goodness for savers.  As has been well documented in this column over the years, savers backed thousands of car companies in the early part of the 20th century that mostly failed.  But thanks to intrepid saving driven by production, what seemed impossible became a reality. 

Notable here is that Wright was half of the Wright Brothers duo that disproved the consensus that man would never fly.  The Wrights luckily saved some of their earnings from a bike shop they owned, and their savings funded feverish experimentation which led to flight that, like the automobile, utterly transformed the global economy for the better.  What this ideally reminds readers is that when individuals produce with an eye on directing some of the fruits of their production into investment, technological advances that exponentially increase our productivity are the result. 

Indeed, imagine what our economy would look like today if producers of the past had bought into Keynesian thinking only to spend all that they earned.  If so, the economy of today would be a slow-growth fraction of its abundant present.  We’re wildly productive today to the economy’s productive betterment precisely because producers delayed always easy consumption in favor of investment. 

Of course, that’s why Justin Lahart’s commentary on the economy of the present is so disturbingly obtuse.  Limited in vision to less than the 1st stage of economic activity, he doesn’t see that his analysis in favor of rampant consumption, if followed, would author exponentially slower growth in the present and future thanks to reduced investment in the technological advances necessary for huge productivity increases.  Thanks to past savings in the 20th century, we now have the car, airplane, computer and internet in the 21st.  Unseen, assuming individuals actually abide Lahart’s analysis, is what we would lack to our extreme economic detriment in the 22nd century thanks to rampant spending limiting investment in new ideas in the 21st. 

To say that consumption really doesn’t matter is ultimately to miss the much greater, booming growth point.  Consumption will always be evident so long as individuals are producing.  But if individuals continue to forego some or a lot of consumption in favor of investment, just imagine how much more advanced the U.S. economy will be in the future, and with this advance, just imagine how much more the hyper-productive of tomorrow will be able to consume.  In short, the answer to economic growth is to ignore the economists, along with the columnists who think like economists do.    

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, a Senior Fellow in Economics at Reason Foundation, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading (www.trtadvisors.com). He's the author of Who Needs the Fed? (Encounter Books, 2016), along with Popular Economics(Regnery, 2015). 

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