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9.3 Saving and Economic Growth

We tend to think of economies as experiencing some ongoing rate of growth.

The growth rate will be positive, negative, or zero, depending upon the

relationship between saving and capital depreciation. In a stationary, or nogrowth,

economy, saving finances just enough investment to offset capital

depreciation. Consumable output is constant over time, as depicted in the first

two periods in Figure 9.2.

If saving is in excess of capital depreciation, the economy grows. The

volume of consumable output rises over time, as depicted in the last three

periods of Figure 9.2. The output of each of the stages of production increases

as well. The economy grows at every margin, allowing even for a

continual increase in the number of stages. During a period of secular growth,

the Hayekian triangle increases in size but not – or not necessarily – in shape.

An interesting question, one whose answer serves as a prelude to the Austrian

analysis of business cycles, concerns the transition from no growth to a

positive rate of growth – or, for that matter, from some initial growth rate to a

Figure 9.2 A possible temporal pattern of consumable output

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Time

Consumable output

saving > depreciation

higher growth rate. What must be true about the time profile of consumable

output during the transition? Let’s assume that there has been no change in the

state of technology or in the general availability of resources. We assume,

though, that people’s intertemporal preferences change if favour of future

consumption. If confronted with the simple choice between no growth and

growth, people would surely prefer the latter. The choice, however, is never

quite that simple. The memorable acronym introduced by science-fiction writer

Robert Heinlein (1966) applies. TANSTAAFL: ‘There ain’t no such thing as a

free lunch’. Modifying the acronym to fit the application, we recognize that

TANSTAFG. Free growth is not available for the asking, either.

The relevant trade-off is that between consumable output in the near future

and consumable output in the more remote future. Are people willing to forgo

some current and near-term consumption in order to enjoy increasing consumption

over an extended period? It is the forgoing of current and near-term

consumption, after all, that frees up the resources with which to expand the

economy’s productive capacity and make increasing future consumption possible.

In Figure 9.2 the hypothesized preference change occurs at the end of

the second period. In light of this change, the output of consumption goods

during the third period needs to be reduced. The freed-up resources can be

employed in earlier stages of production. So altered, the capital structure will

eventually begin yielding consumables at an increased rate, matching the

initial output level at the end of the sixth period (in this particular example)

and exceeding it in the subsequent periods.

The market economy, in the judgement of the Austrians, is capable of

tailoring intertemporal production activities to match intertemporal consumpThe

Austrian school 481

Figure 9.3 Intertemporal capital restructuring

Stages of production

Initial

consumable

output

Initial highest

stage of production

1&2

3

8

7

6

5

4

tion preferences. The temporal pattern of consumable output shown in Figure

9.2 requires a capital restructuring, as can be depicted by a change in the

Hayekian triangle’s shape. Figure 9.3 shows the general nature of the required

change. The no-growth periods 1 and 2, which pre-date the preference

change, are depicted by the triangle having a relatively short intertemporal

capital structure. Beginning with the preference change at the end of period

2, consumption falls, reaching a minimum at the end of period 3. The freedup

resources can be allocated to the early stages of production and to the

creation of still earlier stages, enhancing the ability of the economy to produce

consumable output in the future. The reduced near-term yield of

consumable output and the increased number of stages of production are

depicted by the triangle 3, the smallest of the reshaped triangles.

As goods in process begin to move through the restructured sequence of

stages, the output of consumables begins to rise, and with saving now in

excess of capital depreciation, expansion continues in each of the stages of

production. The economy experiences a positive secular growth rate, as shown

by the triangles 4 through 8, triangle 6 having the same consumable output as

the initial no-growth triangle. Yet to be discussed are the market mechanisms

that actually bring about this capital restructuring. At this point, the focus is

on the correspondence between the intertemporal capital restructuring shown

in Figure 9.3 and the temporal pattern of consumable output shown in Figure

9.2.

The attention here to a one-time simple preference change resulting in a

transition from a no-growth economy to an economy experiencing a positive

secular growth rate finds justification in analytical and heuristic convenience.

More complex preference changes can easily be imagined. Actual changes in

intertemporal preferences may themselves be gradual, and the preferred time

profile of consumables is undoubtedly not as simply described as is the

intertemporal pattern in Figure 9.2. This is only to say that a decentralized

economy – including its intertemporal dimension – entails much more complexity

than can be depicted by our simple pedagogical constructions.

The key feature of Figure 9.2 is the reduction of consumable output during

the transition from no growth to a positive rate of growth. The forgone

consumption is a manifestation of the Heinleinian principle: there ain’t no

such thing as free economic growth. In applications where the initial rate of

growth is positive, there need not be an actual decline in consumable output.

In this circumstance, the Heinleinian principle would manifest itself in a

more subtle way. With consumable output growing initially at a rate of, say, 2

per cent, an increased willingness to save may give rise to a pattern of output

that rises continuously but at changing rates – possibly from the initial rate of

2 per cent to 1 per cent and then subsequently to 3 per cent. During the

transition period, in which the growth rate is only 1 per cent, people are

forgoing consumable output that they could have enjoyed had they not decided

to increase their saving.

The explicit recognition of the opportunity costs associated with savinginduced

growth underlies a general proscription relevant to policy making. In

short, the Austrians are not cheerleaders for growth. Many introductory and

intermediate texts introduce the subject matter of macroeconomics with a

short list of policy goals. Invariably, a prominent entry on the list is rapid

economic growth. But is there any basis for including a high growth rate as a

goal for policy makers to achieve? What is needed, according to the Austrians,

are institutional arrangements that allow the growth rate of consumable

output to be consistent with people’s willingness to save. Production plans

need to be consistent with consumption preferences. But that consistency

may entail a low growth rate, no growth, or – in unusual circumstances –

even a negative growth rate. The growth rate itself is nothing but a summary

description of people’s willingness to forgo consumption in the near future in

order to enjoy increased consumption in the more remote future. Macroeconomists

should not adopt ‘rapid growth’ as one of their goals any more

than microeconomists should adopt ‘plenty of vegetables’ as one of theirs.

Still, there are key macroeconomic issues in play here. Achieving the right

growth rate in macroeconomics has its parallel in microeconomics in achieving

the right quantity of vegetables. As discussed in the following two sections,

both of these goals are achieved if the relevant supply and demand schedules

accurately reflect the fundamentals – the preferences and constraints that

govern the respective market activities.