Before continuing my summary of the key points of Richard Lipsey’s important paper, “The Foundations of the Theory of National Income,” I want to clear up a point that the deliberately provocative title may have obscured. The accounting identities that I am singling out for criticism are the identities between income and expenditure (and output) and between savings and investment. It is true that, as Scott Sumner points out in a comment on my previous post, every theory has to define its terms in some way or another, so there is no point in asserting that a definition is wrong. Scott believes that I am a saying that it is wrong to define investment and savings as the same thing, but I am not saying that. I am saying that, in the context of the basic income-expenditure theory of national income, it makes the theory incoherent, so that there is a mismatch between the definition and the theory.
It is also true that sometimes identities follow directly from basic definitions. Such identities are like conservation laws in physics. For example, purchases must equal sales, because purchasing and selling are reciprocal activities; to assert that purchases are, or could be, unequal to sales would be self-contradictory. Keynes, when ridiculed by Hawtrey for asserting that a) savings and investment are equal by definition, and b) that the equality of savings and investment is achieved by variations in income, responded by comparing the equality of savings and investment to the equality of purchases and sales. Purchases are necessarily equal to sales, but prices adjust to achieve equality between desired purchases and desired sales.
The problem with Keynes’s response to Hawtrey is that to assert that purchases are unequal to sales is to misconstrue in a really fundamental way the meaning of the terms “purchase” and “sales.” But when it comes to national-income accounting, the identity of “investment” and “savings” does not follow immediately from the meaning of those terms. It must be derived from the meaning of two other terms: income and expenditure. So the question becomes whether the act of spending (i.e., expenditure) necessarily entails an immediate and corresponding accrual of income, in the same way that the act of purchasing necessarily entails the act of selling. To assert that expenditure and income are identical is then to assert that any expenditure necessarily and simultaneously entails a corresponding accrual of income.
Before pursuing this line of thought further, let’s just pause for a moment to recall the context for this discussion. We are talking about a fairly primitive model of an economy in which there are households that are units of consumption and providers of factor services. Households purchase consumption goods and provide factor services to business firms. Business firms are units of production that combine factor services provided by households with raw materials purchased from other business firms, and new or existing capital goods produced now or previously by other business firms, to produce raw materials, consumption goods, and capital goods. Raw materials and capital goods are sold to other business firms and consumption goods are sold to households. Business firms are owned by households, so profits earned by business firms are remitted, along with payments for factor services, to households. But although the flow of payments from households to business firms corresponds to a flow of payments from business firms to households, the two flows, which can be measured separately, are, at not identical, or at least not obviously so. When I bought a tall Starbucks coffee just now at a Barnes & Noble cafe, my purchase of $1.98 was exactly and necessarily matched by a sale by Barnes & Noble to the guy who writes for the Uneasy Money blog. But expenditure of $1.98 by the Uneasy Money blogger to Barnes & Noble did not trigger an immediate and corresponding flow of $1.98 to households from Barnes & Noble.
Now I grant that it is possible for income so to be defined that every act of expenditure involves a corresponding accrual of income to providers of factor services to the firm, and of profit to owners of the firm. But expenditure entails simultaneous accrual of income only by virtue of an imputation of income to providers of factor services and of profit to owners of firms. Mere imputation does not and cannot constitute an actual flow of payments by firms to households. The identity between purchases and sales is entailed by the definition of “purchase” and “sales,’ but the supposed identity between expenditure and income is entailed by nothing but an act of imagination. I am not criticizing imagination, which may often provide us with an excellent grasp of reality. But imagination, no matter how well attuned to reality, does not and cannot establish identity.