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check out my vertical integration. and my beard. and my gun.

Noah Smith mused about a subject I’m interested in – the fundamental conceptual issues at the nature of saving – in a way I like to muse about it – thought experiments – so how could I not deconstruct his post in excruciating detail?

Specifically, I’d like to focus on the economy of his deer hunter (one of many, in his example, but just one for this purpose): a man who lives, alone, in the woods, hunting deer. I’m going to break this down as much as I can while abstracting away the non-deer parts of his economy (shelter, clothing, tools, etc). Because the deer hunter is an economy – and while he might be an economy of only one human, who we’ll call Vronsky -, we can productively and fruitfully view him as a vertically-integrated economy, and break him down into four sectors:

1) A firm that hunts deer. The firm locates as many deer as possible and kills them, then sells them to the next sector. It has most fixed costs (labor to hunt deer) and therefore pays relatively fixed wages, the rest collected as profit.

2) A firm that processes dead deer into venison. This firm always purchases all the deer killed by the first firm, and always sells all of its venison to the next two sectors. It has more variable wages (because it has variable labor as its primary input) and takes the rest as profit.

3) A firm that stores processed deer. This firm always buys all the surplus venison produced by the processing firm, salts it, and stores it until there is a market for it. We will discuss its economy in more detail below.

4) The consumer. It always buys a certain amount of venison (let’s call it C) no matter what.

Now, in actuality, all these firms are the same person – Vronsky, who owns all the firms, provides all the labor, and collects all the wages and profits (which he then proceeds to, largely, eat). But we can break the internal economy of his life away from Williamson-ian integration and imagine a market that works something like this:

There are flush years and lean years – periods, that is, in which D (the amount of deer caught by the hunting firm) is either greater than or less than C. Let’s see what happens in a flush year.

The first firm kills some amount of deer, D, that is bigger than C (we’ll call it C + S). It sells C + S deer to the second firm, pays its wages, and collects profit (let’s imagine the firm breaks even in years when D = C).

The second firm processes all the deer into venison, and sells C venison to the consumer and S to the third firm. This firm always breaks even because its labor varies in direct proportion to its production which varies in direct proportion to the available venison.

Now, the third firm. What should be clear is that the third firm is the closest this economy has to a financial sector – it buys venison when it’s plentiful and sells it when it’s, er, dear. This means it, essentially, stabilizes the internal price of venison (and also raw deer). It also is a very different firm from the other two, since labor is a minimal input – it is a capital-intensive firm that specializes in storage and market mastery (we’re assuming it inherits all the capital, physical and intellectual). Assuming our flush year is t=1, the firm has costs – purchasing the venison, salting it, and storing it – but no revenue. Which means it has to borrow. From whom? The consumer’s wages should always = C, so it must borrow from the profitable sector of the economy – the first firm, who has profited from a plenty of deer to kill. Essentially, the amount of raw deer necessary to produce an amount of venison = C costs exactly the wages of a year’s worth of deer hunting, and the wages of processing the deer into venison are equal to the mark-up of venison over deer, meaning all the profits flow to the first firm – the hunting firm. So it loans the money to the third firm, the storage firm.

This works in reverse in lean years. In a lean year (let’s say t=2 is exactly as lean as t=1 is flush, so C-S) the hunting firm is in the red, since it pays wages beyond it’s revenue. However, it can call in a loan from the storage firm, which has almost no costs incurred but suddenly tons of revenue from selling its surplus! So it can pay back the loan to the first firm. So there are now no net savings, nominally or physically. Balance. Om.

But let’s say there isn’t long-term balance. That creates two potential scenarios – one of long-term scarcity, whose end is obvious and really quite sad for poor Vronsky. But long-term plenty is more…interesting.

If there is long-term plenty, a couple things could happen. If we are speaking strictly ceteris paribus, then we would see larger and larger imbalances between the accumulated bonds of the hunting firm and the accumulated debt of the storage firm, ending in…financial crisis! Salted venison doesn’t last forever, so it would be essentially squatting on toxic assets it would be loathe to revalue without the projected revenue to pay off it’s accumulated debt. It would go belly-up, and basically need its loans forgiven – by which we mean, of course, that Vronsky has to write off a lot of old, stinky venison into the river.

But assuming non-ceteris paribusitywhat we would actually see is that, as salted venison becomes plenty, prices decline to the point where no amount of hunting can support the wages of the hunting firm. To skip the boring stuff, what happens is that Vronsky consumes more leisure as he eats down his stock of salted venison and takes up whittling or something.

Now, over the truly long term, endless plenty absent productivity increases is impossible for Malthusian reasons unless you want to assume a Children of Men kind of deal. But even there, we wouldn’t see infinite saving because Vronsky would, sitting on a giant pile of meat, only hunt to the extent he wanted to, not needed to.

The key, in the end, is this – that saving is just as much about production than consumption, and it’s really about the future-orientation of production. In a world where Vronsky is alone, and has no reason to invest in future growth, he won’t endlessly stockpile venison because of diminishing returns and will therefore shift to other forms of spending his time. But in a world where Vronsky was future-oriented, at least minimally, he might spend his savings to create extra time he could use to develop more efficient hunting tools, thus saving even more time in the future. Or he could develop a game that would amuse him. Or he could pack a sack full of salt venison and go on a quest to find a friend, or at least a basset hound.

The real point, in the end, is that nominal savings (which always equal nominal debt) are very disconnected from whether current production is creating value for the future. In the 00’s we simply invested too much of our productive capacity in building overly-large houses in low-cost but low-value locations, which created a lot of nominal debt and therefore nominal savings but didn’t enable the United States to be more productive in the future. On the other hand, higher taxes that built high-speed rail wouldn’t show up as saving, but from the perspective of society, we would be deferring fleetingly pleasurable consumption of movies and candy and craft beer and what have you towards building valuable infrastructure that would make us richer in the future. That’s not nominal savings, and in the short-term GDP looks the same, but that’s true saving in the modern world.

Humans like categories. And for good reason – they make the world computable. Unfortunately, they can have the side effect of predigesting the world for us, so especially when it comes to concepts that are wholly or mostly abstract, we should be doubly on our guard against firm deliniations against what is “x” and what is “not x.”

More often, “x” is better used as an adjective and not a noun, not a class of thing but property that a thing can have more or less of or be more or less consonant with. JP Koning is a terrific advocate for this approach, as he explains why is blog is called “Moneyness:”

The second way to classify the world is to take everything out of these bins and ask the following sorts of questions: in what way are all of these things moneylike? How does the element of moneyness inhere in every valuable object? To what degree is some item more liquid than another? This second approach involves figuring out what set of rules determine an item’s moneyness and what set determines the rest of that item’s value (its non-moneyness).

Here’s an even easier way to think about the two methods. The first sort of monetary analysis uses nouns, the second uses adjectives. Money vs moneyness. When you use noun-based monetary analysis, you’re dealing in absolutes, either/or, and stern lines between items. When you use adjective-based monetary analysis, you’re establishing ranges, dealing in shades of gray, scales, and degrees.

Not only do I wholeheartedly endorse this approach re: understanding money, I think the methodology should be expanded to all kinds of other things. For example – a feature of much libertarian thought is trying to decide whether or not something is “coercive.” I’m not a libertarian, but I am emphatically not trying to concern troll when I suggest a better avenue to pursue is trying to weigh whether different things are more “coerce-y” than other things.

This brings us back to “savings” vs. “consumption,” or “investment,” or “consumer goods” vs. “capital.” I really don’t like these distinctions, because as useful as they have often been in the past in the present they can often sow more confusion than anything else. I suggest we instead look at different goods having different levels of “saveyness” or “capitalness” – some goods last longer, some have more uses, some increase future productivity more than others. This applies to both the consumer side as well as the good side – ie, is a certain consumer decision “saving” or “consuming,” as well as is a certain good “consumption” or “capital?”

Think of a Twinkie. Twinkies are an odd product; on the one hand, they are a cheap, delicious, unhealthy snack; on the other hand, they are (at least according to legend) practically immortal. So is buying a Twinkie consumption or saving? Does it depend when you eat it? And for those who will say “but Twinkies aren’t an investment, they bear no interest, they just sit there” – so does money under the mattress, and nobody thinks that isn’t saving. More interestingly, from the perspective of the economy, for the most part it doesn’t matter what you do with the Twinkie. Obviously in the aggregate, if people buy lots of Twinkies for “saving” purposes as opposed to “consumption” purposes there might be fewer loanable funds, but if you were deciding whether to buy a Twinkie, stuff it in the pantry, and eat it in a year, or simply stuff a dollar bill in the pantry to buy a Twinkie a year from now, you’d still be saving the same amount…right?

Or think about what goods are “consumption” and which are “capital.” Got it? OK – is roasted coffee a consumption good or capital? Fine, that’s probably an easy one – since it only has a single use, it probably gets counted as consumption even though it is manufactured and increases productivity. What about a Keurig machine? What about my beloved ekobrew that allows me to turn fancy whole bean roasted coffee into a Keruig-produced cup of hot java? Are these “consumption” or “capital” goods? Does it matter if I’m a worker at a firm or a sole proprietor? If Google had a giant coffee roasting and producing operation at the Googleplex as a perk for their employees we’d probably call the equipment they used to make the coffee “capital” – so is it merely a question of scale? If I buy it on Amazon, is it automatically “consumption?”

I think these conceptual questions are inevitable if we continue to rely on heuristical categories that don’t tell us much about modern life. Instead, any time we discuss a social production decision, we should instead ask ourselves questions – what does the good do? What inputs does it require to do what it does? How long does it last? How much does it increase productivity and happiness? How much maintenance does it require? What is it replacing or displacing, if anything? Asking these kinds of questions will tell us things about the nature of what we, as a society, are producing that are much more valuable than traditional delineations. For example, I think the United States, as a society, should be building more high-speed rail. High-speed rail is very “capital-y” – it lasts a long time and greatly increases productivity. I would be willing to trade substantial amounts of “consume-y” goods – candy bars, video games, new T-shirts – in favor of building more high-speed rail. Of course, the GDP calculation will show that as “G” and not “S/I” assuming it is built by the state – but it represents a social decision to produce more long-lasting, productivity enhancing, future-oriented stuff than it was before at the expense of more quickly-depleted, pleasure enhancing, present-oriented stuff. In the aggregate, that’s what “saving” is. It’s not a question of “more” or “less” but “what?” and “why?”
See also this book.

Ethan Gach at TLoOG puts his finger on what it was about Noah Smith’s article about the poor and saving that didn’t sit quite right:

Hmmm, I wonder what would happen if everyone started saving as much income as they reasonably could? Where would the high yield investments be with so much capital sloshing around? How would the markets react when aggregate demand plummets even further?

Snark aside, the key here is that, while it would benefit any individual poor person to save more (assuming, of course, that’s possible given their income and cost-of-living, which is not an assumption I’m eager to make), if every poor person somehow stumbled onto Smith’s article and tried to save more it might generate economic disequlibria that wouldn’t benefit anyone. This is semi-related to the point I’ve made before that aggregate saving is a very different animal than individual saving.

IMHO, the best thing we can do for poor people is to a) give them money and other stuff (mostly healthcare), but perhaps more importantly b) make American richer so that we can more easily afford to give poor people money and healthcare. Public policy-wise, this mostly means investing in things that increase forward-looking productivity – high-speed rail, super-fast public internet access, etc. If America is richer tomorrow than it is today, than transfer programs can either a) grow without affecting the real net incomes of those paying for them or b) can remain at current levels of generosity while simultaneously allowing effective taxes to decline or making more public investment possible. That makes the political economy of the welfare state more sustainable and leads to a virtuous cycle. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most wealthy nations have generous social safety nets.

Note that this is distinct from the right-wing trope that economic growth automatically benefits the poor because every time GDP grows golden coins rain from the flying limousines of the rich onto the heads of the grateful poor. The key is still in active support networks for the poor and the way that economic growth tends to strengthen them

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