Monday, January 3, 2011

Spending and Value Added over the Seasonal Cycle

I've heard some complaints about my seasonals article: that I should have looked at the impact of Christmas value-added rather than Christmas spending. If the complaints prove anything, they prove that Keynesian theory has not yet progressed beyond a statement of faith to a theory that might actually be tested.

First of all, this complaint is a great example of slippery Keynesian rhetoric. We have been told time and time again that the recession and sluggish recovery are to be blamed on too little consumer spending. We can and should help fix it -- create millions of jobs, they claim, with trillions of dollars of government spending. They even claim that unemployment insurance (UI) -- a transfer that is normally expected to reduce employment -- would, these days, increase employment because UI is spending.

In summary, the Keynesians say that spending really matters during a recession, and that employment, value-added, etc., would be the result of that sorely needed spending.

Now we're told that value-added is supposedly what's missing, not spending. So what happens to consumer spending in December is, all of the sudden, no big deal, because most of the December action is purportedly spending rather than value-added.

You might think that I'm being too harsh with the Keynesians because, after all, they are trying to explain economics to politicians and laymen who might be overwhelmed by a term like "value-added", so the Keynesians say "spending" when they really mean value-added.

But UI is an excellent example for sorting this out, because we all agree that UI is spending, but not value-added (UI actually pays people for not adding value!). So Christmas consumer spending should create as least as many jobs per dollar (probably more, for the incentive reasons I mentioned in my earlier post) than a UI program does.

Second of all, in claiming (without evidence) that the retail sales seasonal is very different from the value-added seasonal, econbrowser probably has the facts wrong. Professor Jeffrey Miron has written a book about the seasonal cycle, and reports that value-added falls sharply from the fourth quarter to the subsequent first quarter -- very much in line with the drop in retail sales. The value-added of Christmas is not all that different from the spending.

Third, I do not doubt that December retail sales are associated with some significant production in November, and October, and maybe even with some significant production in the 3rd quarter. But both of my recent posts on this topic repeatedly reference drops FROM DECEMBER TO JANUARY. At lot of the seasonal jobs lost at the end of the year include those that started in October and November, so in making December-January comparisons I do not have to assume that all of the employment and production associated with December spending occurred in December.

Keynesians are understandably nervous that the seasonal cycle appears to contradict the most fundamental tenets of their theory. Many of them really do think that government spending is as good as Christmas.


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