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October 06, 2005
The Capital Fundamentalists Ride Again
In a recent post on the savings rate, James Hamilton of Econbrowser writes
In the long run, a key determinant of national income is national wealth, which is only acquired over time through national saving.
I have no beef with Professor Hamilton, who is a fine economist (and also teaches at the University of California, San Diego, one of my favorite departments).
However, that word 'only' is exceedingly misleading and leads to bad policy.
National wealth arises out of three main sources: Investment in physical capital, investment in human capital, and investment in intellectual capital--that is, the development of new technologies and new ways of doing things.
Investment in physical capital--machines, buildings, etc--corresponds to savings in the national income accounts (what I mean by 'corresponds' is that investment should equal savings, when foreign money flows are taken into account).
However, most spending on education--human capital--is bizarrely counted as consumption (!) in the national income accounts. Most government and academic spending on research and development is also counted as consumption, while most business spending on R&D is counted as an expense of doing business, not as investment or savings. In other words, increases in education and R&D spending can actually reduce the national savings rate, as currently measured, even while they add to national wealth.
More generally, technology-based improvements in productivity can boost productivity growth and national wealth without requiring an increase in the national savings rate.
Here's two nice charts which demonstrate this. The first chart plots the ten year average of national savings against the ten-year productivity growth rate. National savings falls steadily over this 34 year period, but productivity growth first goes down and then accelerates back up to the previous level (the chart runs out to 2004).
Now take a look at this chart. I calculate real net national wealth as the net worth of households, minus the federal debt, adjusted for inflation. I plot the ten-year growth rate of real net national wealth against the national savings rate. Lo and behold, wealth growth accelerates without a commensurate gain in national savings.
This is important stuff. The link between national savings and productivity growth, and national savings and wealth growth, is much weaker than most people realize.
One more table for fun. It turns out that national savings doesn't even have a clear link to capital investment. Take a look here.
The left column is of course the national savings rate. The right hand column is the growth rate of capital services, which can be thought of as a measure of the growth rate of the capital stock.
And look at that! The savings rate drops over time, but capital growth stays more or less the same.
I'm done now--and ready for the response of the capital fundamentalists.
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Fundamentalism is probably never a good thing. The fact that national savings should be the only determinant measuring national wealth is obviously a flawed and simplistic remark ... I actually think Mr. Hamilton would agree to this :).
However, when seen in a context of for example USA's current account deficit and houses being used as ATM machines I think many an economist should begin to push for a little prudence and thrift. I won't commit the cardinal sin of posting a link to the Economist in this Blog :), but the recent discourse in the English magazine mirrors the mainstream argument that excess savings in the world versus American consumers' spending spree which has kept the world economy afloat in the recent years. What happens when the American consumers lose their confidence because of rising energy prices and devastating hurricanes especially when there is no saving to rely upon.
But then again your charts admittedly that my string of arguments does not automatically result in a bearish mood.
Posted by: Claus Vistesen at October 7, 2005 05:25 PM
Folks like James Hamilton and myself have no beef with those who would classify spending on education and R&D as forms of savings /
investment. Note savings is simply the accumulation of wealth - regardless of whether it is accumulated in the form of physical assets, human capital, or financial assets. Investment is simply the accumulation of physical assets and human capital with the difference between saving and investment being our additions (subtractions) from our financial wealth. The fact is that we are saving less than we were 25 year ago - regardless of how you define savings. We are not investing more of income in R&D or education today than we were in earlier periods. You attempt to defend the reductions in national savings seem to miss the point entirely. BTW - Hamilton has a nice reply to your lack of importance of savings post.
Posted by: pgl at October 16, 2005 06:53 PM
The classification of R&D and education spending as consumption matters any time we compare the U.S. savings rate with that of other countries and go "tsk tsk".
Posted by: Mike Mandel at October 17, 2005 03:05 PM