Archive for January, 2012

The Importance of Capital Theory

Friday, January 13th, 2012



Robert P. Murphy

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Robert Murphy is an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, where he teaches at the Mises Academy. He runs the blog Free Advice and is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism, the Study Guide to “Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market,” the “Human Action” Study Guide, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal, and his newest book, Lessons for the Young Economist. Send him mail.

As I have read countless analysts, including professional economists, offer “solutions” to the financial crisis, I have become more convinced of the importance of capital theory. You see this with the dichotomy people keep drawing between the financial markets and the “real economy,” a distinction that is useful for some purposes but which in this context often reinforces the idea that the stock market is really just a casino.

When the Paulson Plan was first being debated, even sharp, free-market thinkers who are otherwise very solid were recommending instead that “bank recapitalization” was the way to fix things. But if our troubles stem from a diversion of real resources into the housing sector — if too many and too big homes were built at the expense of other possible uses for those inputs — then government financial transfers per se won’t do anything except redistribute the losses.

Once we understand how our present problems are due to a Fed-induced distortion in the capital structure, it becomes clear that the worst recommendation is for the Fed to cut interest rates and pump in ever more “liquidity.” It was artificially cheap credit that fueled the housing boom in the first place. Greenspan brought the federal funds target rate down to a ridiculous 1 percent — meaning the interest rate was actually negative, once we adjust for price inflation — and held it there for a year. He did this in order to (apparently) obviate the need for a harsh recession in the “real economy” after the dot-com crash. But in fact he sowed the seeds for our present crisis. If Bernanke continues shoveling in hundreds of billions to needy bankers, five years from now Americans (and the rest of the world) may look back fondly on the present the way the 2001 downturn now seems like a minor inconvenience.

Krugman and Cowen Ridicule the Austrian “Hangover” Theory

Rather than start from scratch, in this article I will illustrate the importance of a solid theory of capital by showing how very intelligent economists — one of whom is now a Nobel laureate — make elementary mistakes in their critique of Austrian business cycle theory (ABCT). For the sake of brevity, I won’t recapitulate the theory here; in the links above you can see my own watered-down expositions, or go here for Roger Garrison’s amazing PowerPoint presentation, or here for a more comprehensive introduction. Now then, assuming the reader understands the basic Austrian story, let us quote Tyler Cowen’s recent discussion of Paul Krugman’s Slate critique of ABCT:

[Paul Krugman:] Here’s the problem: As a matter of simple arithmetic, total spending in the economy is necessarily equal to total income (every sale is also a purchase, and vice versa). So if people decide to spend less on investment goods, doesn’t that mean that they must be deciding to spend more on consumption goods — implying that an investment slump should always be accompanied by a corresponding consumption boom? And if so why should there be a rise in unemployment?

[Tyler Cowen commenting on the above quote:] But I think the point is more effective in reverse. Why should the boom be a boom in the first place? The shift toward investment goods, and thus away from consumption goods production, should mean falling real wages, not rising real wages. In other words, the Austrian theory doesn’t generate the very high degree of comovement found in the data.

These are actually two separate points; i.e., Cowen did more than simply “reverse” the argument, he slightly changed the point. To help the reader understand my response, let me paraphrase (what I take to be) Krugman’s and Cowen’s similar (but distinct) objections to the Mises-Hayek theory.

The basic Austrian story is that during the artificial boom, workers’ labor and other resources get channeled into investment projects that aren’t compatible with the overall level of real savings. Sooner or later, reality rears its ugly head, and the unsustainable projects have to be abandoned before completion. Entrepreneurs realize they were horribly mistaken during the boom, everybody feels poorer and slashes consumption, and many workers get thrown out of jobs until the production structure can be reconfigured in light of the revelation.

Now then, Krugman is saying that this story doesn’t make sense. We can stipulate that certain producers (such as builders) expanded too aggressively in a boom, and then they suddenly discover that their customers no longer want to buy their products (urban office buildings, let’s say). But, Krugman explains, people in the economy have to spend their income somewhere. If the income isn’t going towards $10 million office buildings, it must be getting channeled into movie tickets, or electric generators, or copies of Peter Schiff’s book. So it’s not at all obvious, Krugman concludes, why massive unemployment should accompany the onset of the “hangover” from the credit binge. The jobs destroyed in the “higher-order” (in Austrian jargon) stages ought to be offset by newly created jobs in the lower-order stages.

Tyler Cowen’s objection is similar, but as I said, it’s not quite the same. Cowen wants to know why people should feel rich during the Fed-induced boom, as the Austrians allege. In fact, because workers and materials are shifted into producing higher-order goods like tractor trailers and orange cones for road crews, the fact of scarcity implies that there should be fewer consumption goods (TVs, steak dinners, sports cars) being cranked out when the boom first sets in. If fewer consumption goods are being produced, then per capita real income has to fall, which again is the opposite of what the Austrians claim.

I have done my best to paraphrase what I understand to be Krugman’s and Cowen’s points. I must confess that even while typing out the above, the non sequitur in each objection jumped out at me. For Krugman, his argument relies on a static conception of income and spending. Just using that accounting tautology — without indexing for time — Krugman could also argue that real income can never change in an economy, even if the government announced that the most productive 10% of workers in every firm would be shot. (After all, total income would still equal total spending.)

As for Cowen, he seems to be assuming that “real income” is equivalent to “real consumption.” I don’t know what to say except, “No it isn’t.” If a worker gets a job in a silver mine and gets paid in ounces of silver that he stores in his basement, he can have very high “real wages” even if his consumption is very low. In fairness, Cowen fired off the above on his blog, not in a refereed journal article; I would hate to see a collection of the dumbest things I’ve ever said on my blog. So let’s assume that he meant to say that ABCT makes us expect real consumption (not income) to fall during the boom period. Cowen’s point is that this doesn’t match with the data. During the boom, we see increased investment in new (and more “roundabout” in Austrian lingo) projects, and we see workers getting paid more and hence buying more consumer goods. But shouldn’t this be impossible, Cowen asks, if, as the Austrians claim, during the boom, resources are pulled away from consumption goods (like iPhones) and instead are devoted to the production of investment goods (like tractor trailers)? In the next section we’ll see what Cowen is overlooking.

A Sushi Model of Capital Consumption

Above I’ve pointed out some of the basic flaws in Krugman’s and Cowen’s arguments. (Other Austrians have responded to Krugman in the past. See the replies of Garrison and Cochran.) More generally, they are ignoring the all-important notion of capital consumption. This is why one needs to understand capital theory, as pioneered by Carl Menger and Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, in order to make sense of what the heck just happened in the US economy. Any talking head on CNBC who doesn’t understand capital consumption is going to give horrible policy recommendations.

When thinking about this article, I went back and forth. I have decided that I should spell out a “model” of intermediate complexity, because if I simplify it too much, it might not really click with the reader, but if I go overboard with it, no one in his right mind would finish the article. Without further ado, let’s examine a hypothetical island economy composed of 100 people, where the only consumption good is rolls of sushi.

The island starts in an initial equilibrium that is indefinitely sustainable. Every day, 25 people row boats out into the water and use nets to catch fish. Another 25 of the islanders go into the paddies to gather rice. Yet another 25 people take rice and fish (collected during the previous day, of course) and make tantalizing sushi rolls. Finally, the remaining 25 of the islanders devote their days to upkeep of the boats and nets. In this way, every day there are a total of (let us say) 500 sushi rolls produced, allowing each islander to eat 5 sushi rolls per day, day in and day out. Not a bad life, really, especially when you consider the ocean view and the absence of Jim Cramer.

But alas, one day Paul Krugman washes onto the beach. After being revived, he surveys the humble economy and starts advising the islanders on how to raise their standard of living to American levels. He shows them the outboard motor (still full of gas) from his shipwreck, and they are intrigued. Being untrained in economics, they find his arguments irresistible and agree to follow his recommendations.

Therefore, the original, sustainable deployment of island workers is altered. Under Krugman’s plan for prosperity, 30 islanders take the boats (one with a motor) and nets out to catch fish. Another 30 gather rice from the paddies. A third 30 use the fish and rice to make sushi rolls. In a new twist, 5 of the islanders scour the island for materials necessary to maintain the motor; after all, every day it burns gasoline, and its oil gets dirtier. But of course, all of this only leaves 5 islanders remaining to maintain the boats and nets, which they continue to do every day. (If the reader is curious, Krugman doesn’t work in sushi production. He spends his days in a hammock, penning essays that blame the islanders’ poverty on the stinginess of the coconut trees.)

For a few months, the islanders are convinced that the pale-faced Nobel laureate is a genius. Every day, 606 sushi rolls are produced, meaning that everyone (including Krugman) gets to eat 6 rolls per day, instead of the 5 rolls per day to which they had been accustomed. The islanders believe this increase is due to use of the motor, but really it’s mostly due to the rearrangement of tasks. Before, only 25 people were devoted to fishing, rice collection, and sushi preparation. But now, 30 people are devoted to each of these areas. So even without the motor, total daily output of sushi would have increased by 20%, assuming the islanders were equally good at the various jobs, and that there were plenty of fish and rice provided by nature. (In fact, the contribution of the motor was really only the extra 6 rolls necessary to feed Krugman.)

But alas, eventually the reduction in boat and net maintenance begins to affect output. With only 5 islanders devoted to this task, instead of the original 25, something has to give. The nets become more and more frayed over time, and the boats develop small leaks. This means that the 30 fishermen don’t return each day with as many fish, because their equipment isn’t as good as it used to be. The 30 islanders making sushi are then in a fix, because they now have an imbalance between rice and fish. They start cheating, by putting in smaller pieces of fish into each roll. The islanders continue to get 6 rolls per day, but now each roll has less fish in it. The islanders are furious — except for those who are repulsed by the idea of ingesting raw fish.

Being a trained economist, Krugman knows what to do. He suggests that 2 of the rice workers and 2 of the sushi rollers switch over to help the fishermen. Now with 34 workers, the islanders are able to catch almost as many fish per day as they were in the previous months, even though they are now using tattered nets and dilapidated boats. Krugman — being very sharp with numbers — moved just enough workers so that the fish caught by the 34 islanders matches up perfectly with the rice picked by the remaining 28 islanders who go to the paddies every day. With this amount of fish and rice, the 28 workers in the rolling occupation are able to produce 556 sushi rolls per day. This allows everyone to consume about 5 and a half rolls per day, with a bonus roll left over for Krugman.

The islanders are a bit concerned. When they first followed Krugman’s advice, their consumption jumped from 5 rolls to 6 per day. Then when things seemed to be all screwed up, Krugman managed to fix the worst of the discoordination, but still, consumption fell to 5.5 rolls per day. Krugman reminded them that 5.5 was better than 5. He finally got the crowd to disperse by talking about “Cobb-Douglas production functions” and drawing IS-LM curves in the sand.

Because this is a family-friendly website, we will stop our story here. Needless to say, at some point the 5 islanders devoted to net and boat production will decide that they have to cut their losses. Rather than trying to maintain the original fleet of boats and original collection of nets with only 5 workers instead of 25, they will instead focus their efforts on the best 20% of the boats and nets, and keep them in great shape. At that point, it will be physically impossible for the islanders to prop up their daily sushi output. In order just to return to their original, sustainable level of 5 sushi rolls per person per day, the islanders will need to suffer a period of privation where many of them are devoted to net and boat production. (We can only hope that Professor Krugman has been rescued by the Swedes by this time.)

The 5 people looking for ways to synthesize gasoline and motor oil will have to abandon that task, because it was never appropriate for the islanders’ primitive capital structure. The islanders will of course discard the motor brought to the island by Krugman once it runs out of gas.

Finally, we predict that during the period of transition, some islanders will have nothing to do. After all, there will already be the maximum needed for catching fish with the usable boats and nets, and there will already be the corresponding number of islanders devoted to rice collection and sushi rolling, given the small daily catch of fish. There would be no point in adding extra islanders to boat and net production, because then they would end up building more than could be sustained in the long run. Hence, the elders rotate 10 people every day, who are allowed to goof off. They could of course go try to catch fish with their bare hands, or go gather rice that would just be eaten in piles by itself, but everyone decides that this is a waste of time. Given the realities, it is decided that during the transition, 10 people get the day off, even though everyone is hungry. That is just how bad Krugman’s advice was.


As our simple story illustrates, in modern economies workers use capital goods to augment their labor as they transform nature’s gifts into consumption goods. Because of the time structure of production, it is possible to temporarily boost everyone’s consumption, but only at the expense of maintaining the capital goods (the boats and nets), which are thus “consumed.” At some point, engineering reality sets in, and no “stimulus” policies can prevent a sharp drop in consumption.

Although the story of the sushi economy was simplistic, I hope that it illustrated essential features of a boom-bust cycle. When the islanders first implement Krugman’s advice, they all feel richer. After all, they really are eating 6 rolls per day instead of 5; there is no arguing with results. And they would have no reason to suspect an unsustainable restructuring, either: after all, they are using a new outboard motor. This is analogous to the arguments about the “New Economy” during the dot-com boom, or the confidence placed in the new financial instruments used during the housing boom. During every boom, people can always come up with reasons that “this time it’s different.”

In the sushi economy, this initial prosperity was illusory. Although there were indeed benefits from the new technology, the bulk of the extra consumption was being financed through capital consumption, i.e., by allowing the boats and nets to deteriorate. This is analogous to Americans’ consuming a massive amount of imported consumption goods during the housing boom, because they erroneously thought their rising house values would more than compensate. In other words, had Americans realized that their real-estate holdings would plummet in a few years, they would not have consumed nearly as much. They were consuming capital without realizing it, just as the islanders didn’t realize that their extra sushi consumption was largely financed through neglect of their boats and nets.

Note too that this aspect of the story answers Cowen’s objection: people consume more during the boom — i.e., the villagers eat more sushi per day — even while new, unsustainable investment projects are started. (In our sushi economy, the unsustainable project was looking for gasoline for the newfangled outboard motor.) Cowen is right that a sustainable lengthening of the capital structure initially requires a reduction in consumption; what happens is investors abstain and plow their savings into the new projects. But during a central-bank-induced boom, there hasn’t been real savings to fund the new investments. That’s why the boom is unsustainable, but it also explains why consumption increases at the same time. It’s true that this is impossible in the long run, but in the short run it is possible to increase investment in new projects, and to increase consumption at the same time. What you do is neglect maintenance on critical intermediate goods, just as our islanders were able to pull off the feat for a few months. A modern economy is very complex, and it can take a few years for an unsustainable structure to become recognized as such.

Finally, our sushi economy showed why unemployment increases during the retrenchment. People don’t like to work; they would rather lounge around. In order for it be worthwhile to give up leisure, the payoffs from labor have to be high enough. During the “recession” period, when the islanders had to cut way back on output from the fish, rice, and sushi-roll “sectors,” there weren’t 100 different tasks worth doing. In our story, we stipulated that only 90 people could be usefully integrated into the production structure, at least until the fleet of boats and supply of nets start getting restored, allowing more of the “unemployed” islanders to once again have something useful to do.

In the real world, this also happens: during the recession following the artificial boom period, resources need to get rearranged; certain projects need to be abandoned (like hunting for gasoline in the sushi economy); and critical intermediate goods (like boats and nets) need to be replenished since they were ignored during the boom. It takes time for all of the million-and-one different types of materials, tools, and equipment to be furnished in order to resume normal growth. During that transition, the contribution of the labor of some people is so low that it’s not worth it to hire them (especially with minimum-wage laws and other regulations).

The elementary flaw in Krugman’s objection is that he is ignoring the time structure of production. When workers get laid off in the industries that produce investment goods, they can’t simply switch over to cranking out TVs and steak dinners. This is because the production of TVs and steak dinners relies on capital goods that must have already been produced. In our sushi economy, the unemployed islanders couldn’t jump into sushi rolling, because there weren’t yet enough fish being produced. And they couldn’t jump into fish production, because there weren’t enough boats and nets to make their efforts worthwhile. And finally, they couldn’t jump into boat and net production, because there were already enough islanders working in that area to restore the fleet and collection of nets back to their long-run sustainable level.

People in grad school would sometimes ask me why I bothered with an “obsolete” school of thought. I didn’t bother citing subjectivism, monetary theory, or even entrepreneurship, though those are all areas where the Austrian school is superior to the neoclassical mainstream. Nope, I would always say, “Their capital theory and business-cycle theory are the best I have found.” Our current economic crisis — and the fact that Nobel laureates don’t even understand what is happening — shows that I chose wisely.