In this installment of my series on Richard Lipsey’s essay “The Foundations of the Theory of National Income,” I am going to focus on a single issue: what inferences about reality are deducible from a definition about the meaning of the terms used in a scientific theory? In my first installment I listed seven common statements about the basic Keynesian income-expenditure model that are found in most textbooks. The first concerned the confusion between the equality of investment and saving (or between income and expenditure) as an equilibrium condition and a definitional identity. Interpreting the equality of savings and investment as an identity essentially means collapsing the entire model onto the 45-degree line and arbitrarily choosing some point on the 45-degree line as the solution of the model.
That nonsensical interpretation of the simple Keynesian cross is obviously unsatisfactory, so, in an effort to save both the definitional identity of savings and investment and the equality of investment and savings as an equilibrium condition, the textbooks have introduced a distinction between ex ante and ex post in which savings and investment are defined to be identically equal ex post, but planned (ex ante) savings may differ from planned (ex ante) investment, their equality being the condition for equilibrium.
Now, to be fair, it is perfectly legitimate to define an equilibrium in terms of plan consistency, and to say that the inconsistency of the plans occasions a process of readjustment in the plans, and that it is the readjustment in the plans which leads to a new equilibrium. The problem with the textbook treatment is that it draws factual inferences about the adjustment process to a disequilibrium in which planned saving is not equal to planned investment from the definitional identity between ex post savings and ex post investment. In particular, the typical textbook treatment infers that in a disequilibrium with planned savings not equal to planned investment, the adjustment process is characterized by unplanned positive or negative investment (inventory accumulation or decumulation) corresponding to the gap between planned savings and planned investment. Identifying a gap between planned saving and planned investment with unplanned inventory accumulation or decumulation, as textbook treatments of the income expenditure model typically do, is logically unfounded.
Again, I want to be careful, I am not saying that unplanned inventory accumulation or decumulation could not occur in response to a difference gap between planned savings and planned investment, or even that such unplanned inventory accumulation or decumulation is unlikely to occur. What I am saying is that the definitional identity between ex post savings and ex post investment does not imply that such inventory accumulation or decumulation takes place and certainly not that the amount by which inventories change is necessarily equal to the gap between planned savings and planned investment.
Richard Lipsey made the key point in his comment on my previous post:
The main issue in this whole discussion is, I think, can we use a definitional identity to rule out an imaginable state of the universe. The answer is “No”, which is why Keynes was wrong. The definitional identity of S ≡ I tells us nothing about what will happen if agents wish to save a different amount from what agents wish to invest.
Here is how Lipsey put it in his 1972 essay:
The error in this interpretation lies in the belief that the identity E ≡ Y can tell us what can and cannot happen in the world. If it were possible that a definitional identity could rule out certain imaginable events, then such a definitional identity would be an informative statement having empirical content! If it is a genuine definitional identity (which follows from our use of words and is compatible with all states of the universe) then it is only telling us that we are using E and Y to refer to the same thing, and this statement no more allows us to place restrictions on what happens in the world than does the statement that we are not using E and Y to refer to the same thing.
Lipsey illustrated the problem using the simple Keynesian cross diagram. To make the discussion a bit easier to follow, I am going to refer to my own slightly altered version (using a specific numerical example) of the familiar diagram. Setting investment (I) equal to 100 and assuming the following consumption function
C = 25 + .5Y
We can easily solve for an equilibrium income of 250 corresponding to the intersection of the expenditure function with the 45-degree line.
What happens if we posit that the system is at a disequilibrium point, say Y = 400. The usual interpretation is that at Y = 400, planned (ex ante) investment is less than savings and planned (ex ante) expenditure is less than income. Because, actual (ex post) investment is identically equal to savings and because actual (ex post) expenditure is identically equal to income, unplanned investment must occur to guarantee that the investment-savings identity is satisfied. The amount of unplanned investment is shown on the graph as the vertical distance between the expenditure function (E(Y)) at Y = 400 and the 45-degree line at Y = 400. This distance is shown in my diagram as the vertical distance between the points a and b on the diagram, and it is easy to check that the distance corresponds to a value of 75.
So the basic textbook interpretation of the Keynesian cross is using the savings-investment identity to derive a proposition about the behavior of the economy in disequilibrium. It is saying that an economy in disequilibrium with planned investment less than planned savings adjusts to the disequilibrium through unplanned inventory accumulation (unplanned investment) that exactly matches the difference between planned saving and planned investment. But it is logically impossible for a verbal identity (between savings and investment) — an identity that can never be violated in any actual state of the world — to give us any information about what actually happens in the world, because whatever happens in the world, the identity will always be satisfied.
Recall erroneous propositions 2, 3 and 4, listed in part I of this series:
2 Although people may try to save different amounts from what people try to invest, savings can’t be different from investment; realized (ex post) savings necessarily always equals realized (ex post) investment.
3 Out of equilibrium, planned savings do not equal planned investment, so it follows from (2) that someone’s plans are being disappointed, and there must be either unplanned savings or dissavings, or unplanned investment or disinvestment
4 The simultaneous fulfilment of the plans of savers and investors occurs only when income is at its equilibrium level just as the plans of buyers and sellers can be simultaneously fulfilled only at the equilibrium price.
If realized (ex post) savings necessarily always equals realized (ex post) investment, that equality is the result of how we have chosen to define those terms, not because of people actually are behaving, e.g., by unwillingly accumulating inventories or failing to save as much as they had intended to. However people behave, the identity between savings and investment will be satisfied. And whether savers and investors are able to fulfill their plans or are unable to do so cannot possibly be inferred from a definition that says that savings and investment mean the same thing.
In several of his comments on my recent posts, Scott Sumner has cited the professional consensus that savings and investment are defined to be equal. I am not so sure that there is really a consensus on that point, because I don’t think that most economists have thought carefully about what the identity actually means. But even if there is a consensus that savings is identical to investment, no empirical implication follows from that definition. But typical textbook expositions, and I think even Scott himself when he is not being careful, do use the savings-investment identity to make inferences about what actually happens in the real world.
In the next installment, I will go through a numerical example that shows, based on a simple lagged adjustment between consumption and income (household consumption in this period being a function of income in the previous period), that planned savings and planned investment can be realized and unequal in the transition from one equilibrium to another.
PS I apologize for having been unable to respond to a number of comments to previous posts. I will try to respond in the next day or two.