All Commentary
Thursday, April 5, 2012

Mr. Keynes’s Aggregates

Concealing the mechanisms of change.

One of F. A. Hayek’s most accurate, and oft-repeated, lines about John Maynard Keynes comes from a review of Keynes’s 1930 book, A Treatise on Money.  Hayek wrote: “Mr. Keynes’ aggregates conceal the most fundamental mechanisms of change.”  That Austrian macroeconomics rests firmly on the microeconomic “mechanisms of change” that ultimately comprise economic activity remains a crucial reason why that insight can better explain both the mistakes of the boom and the way out of the bust.

The Austrian insight is relevant to both capital and labor.  In standard Keynesian models (as well as most other macroeconomic models), capital is understood as an undifferentiated mass.  The Keynesian model also assumes that interest rates do not equilibrate the supply of savings and the demand for investment funds.  Thus when people save more, there’s no signal transmitted to investors that they should build more for the future.  As a result, the decline in consumption that accompanies the increase in savings causes firms to invest less as their inventories pile up without any offsetting increase in investment elsewhere due to the lower interest rate.

In the Austrian view investment cannot be treated at this high a level of aggregation.  The production process that leads to consumption goods comprises a number of stages, starting with the “early” stages of research and development and raw materials, and finishing with the “later” stages, such as wholesaling or inventory management, which are closer to the final consumer purchase.  Looking at the structure of production this way enables Austrians to note that when saving increases and causes interest rates to fall, resources will indeed be drawn away from the late-stage investments in inventory, but they will be drawn toward investment in early stages of production, as the interest lower rate makes longer-term production processes involving more stages relatively less costly.  Over time, savings promotes those longer-term processes, which are more productive and provide us the capital base for economic growth.

By disaggregating investment, the Austrian model also reminds us that different kinds of  capital goods have to “fit together” to be productive.  This is most clear when central banks try to inflate to generate growth.  In this case, the lower interest rates produced by excess money lead to increased investment in those same early stages.  However, unlike the first story, where that increased investment is financed by reduced investment in the later stages, inflation also increases consumption as the lower interest rate reduces savings.  The credit expansion creates no new resources but leads to more investment at both the very late and very early stages of production. This is the boom of the business cycle.

However, like a railroad being built, misaligned, from two directions, the plans of both sets of investors are unsustainable and the capital projects are left unfinished.  We have a recession.

Labor Too

All that is true of capital here is also true of labor.  Most Keynesian models also treat labor as an undifferentiated aggregate, speaking of “the” labor market and “the” wage rate.  Once we look at the microeconomic processes underlying the structure of production, we see that each of these stages has its own labor market.  Thus when resources move from one stage to another, the demand for labor will shift also, leading to changes in each wage rate.  Growing sectors will attract labor, and shrinking ones lose it.

During an inflation-generated boom, labor, like capital, is misallocated across stages.  And when the boom turns to bust, workers will lose their jobs as the projects they were working on are abandoned.  Unemployment results as we enter the recession.  However, that unemployment, like the misallocation of capital, will not be evenly distributed across the economy.  To see the real costs of inflation-generated business cycles, we need to get behind the aggregates to see the fundamental mechanisms of change.

Being too focused on Keynes’s aggregates can also mislead us as to the best ways to get out of the recession once we’re in it.  It may look as if all we need more is investment or more jobs. But once we understand that the “fundamental mechanisms of change” have to do with the boom’s microeconomic misallocation of capital and labor, we see that what is needed is a reallocation of resources not just more of them.  Capital needs to move out of unproductive lines and back toward productive ones, and the same is true of labor.

Stimulus spending, bailouts, and extension of unemployment benefits only prevent the fundamental mechanisms of change from doing their work in unwinding the errors of the last decade.  The cure for macroeconomic discoordination is freeing up the entrepreneurial market process to reallocate and coordinate resources.  But 80 years after Hayek first made the point, the fascination by economists and politicians with Keynes’s aggregates continues to conceal the fundamental mechanisms of change, and in so doing, also continues to block the processes through which a sustainable recovery can take place.

(This first appeared on September 9, 2010.)

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.