Front Page Titles (by Subject) Part 2:: THE THEORY OF INTEREST - Capital, Interest, and Rent
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Part 2:: THE THEORY OF INTEREST - Frank A. Fetter, Capital, Interest, and Rent 
Capital, Interest, and Rent: Essays in the Theory of Distribution, ed. with an Introduction by Murray N. Rothbard (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977).
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THE THEORY OF INTEREST
The “Roundabout Process” in the Interest Theory
THE NATURE OF THE INTEREST PROBLEM.
Professor Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk's critique1 of the older interest theories marks a new era in economic thought. The highest point attained in his more positive discussion is his statement of the real nature of the interest problem, as that of the exchange of present goods against future goods. This thought was an inspirational break with the past, and was charged with possibilities for the future of economic theory.
Nevertheless, Böhm-Bawerk has failed to formulate a consistent and satisfactory theory of interest. A statement of the nature of the problem and a solution of it are not the same. The English translater implies his belief that they are when he calls this statement “the essence” of “Böhm-Bawerk's theory of interest”2 ; the author likewise appears to identify the two when, in his Positive Theory,3 he says: “Present goods are, as a rule, worth more than future goods of like kind and number4 ...This proposition is the kernel and centre of the interest theory which I have to present.” This, however, is but the fact which the interest theory is to explain logically. The proposition is not open to question: it is a novel, but unquestionably better, way of stating the nature of the problem. Explanations may differ after the nature of the problem is well agreed upon. Böhm-Bawerk shows not only in manifold expressions, but by devoting several hundred pages to setting forth his theory of interest, that he does not consider his work done when the proposition above quoted is stated. He adds immediately: “The first part of our explanation
THE ROUNDABOUT PROCESS AND THE PRODUCTIVITY OF CAPITAL.
It is our purpose here to consider only one of the three principal features of Böhm-Bawerk's explanation “why present goods are, as a rule, worth more than future goods”; but that one is the most important. It is the technical superiority of present goods as instruments of production when used in “roundabout” processes.6 He repeatedly refers to this as “the most fundamental conception in the theory of capital,”7 as “the chief pillar,”8 and as “the empirical corner-stone” of his theory. He has recently offered an elaborate defense and restatement of it.9
Again, we shall narrow our discussion to one only of the three supports10 offered for the proposition that roundabout processes are more productive than direct ones; that is, its agreement with the old proposition that “capital is productive.” This proposition is so generally accepted that, if the two propositions can be shown to be identical in thought, differing merely in expression, his thesis, so Böhm-Bawerk declares, is established. The main purpose of the author is to prove that a more roundabout process means identically the same as production with “more capital.” If he can show that the two propositions are interchangeable, he will gain for the one all of the authority and belief that attaches to the other among economic students.
It may enable the reader to see a unity in the various criticisms that are to follow: it may serve to show that the negative views expressed proceed not from a spirit of captiousness but from a somewhat positive conception of the nature of the solution, if at this point is indicated the standpoint from which our discussion proceeds. We must demand of the theorist dealing with capital and interest (1) that the term “capital” be used consistently in the various stages of his argument, and (2) that the fundamental explanation apply to interest wherever it is manifest and in all its forms. On another occasion I have given reasons for the belief that in these respects Böhm-Bawerk is at fault.11 In the following discussion these tests are applied to the particular question in hand.
If it be allowable to epitomize many pages of the author's argument into a single syllogism, it would run thus:—
First premise: The proposition that capital is productive (which means that, the more capitalistic agents12 labor has, the more productive it is) is unquestionable.
Second premise, first link: More capital means identically the same as a longer production period; second link: A longer production period means the same as a more roundabout process.
Conclusion: Therefore the statement that the roundabout process is more productive is unquestionable.
Böhm-Bawerk does not deem it necessary to labor long to prove the general proposition that capital is productive. He first states the proposition in this form:13 “Labor is more productive according as it is equipped with more capitalistic agents.” This may suggest the idea of a greater number or quantity of agents, physically considered; but he immediately uses in his illustration the value expression of capital in these words: “National labor yields more when supported by a capital of five hundred florins per head than without any capital at all, and yields still more when the capital is five thousand florins or ten thousand florins per head.” The implication, here as elsewhere, is that, while this increase may not be in exact proportion to, it is some function of, the increase of capital. So much depends on the sense in which the word “capital” is used that we must examine its meaning in this connection.
“More capitalistic agents” evidently tend to more technical production. Two spades, two fields, two ploughs, in place of one, and perfect tools in place of crude ones, mean a more bountifully endowed world to work in; and, while an increase of one particular kind of agent may sometimes burden rather than aid industry, the possibility of adjusting and interchanging the supply of different agents makes the proposition a valid one in general. But, when one passes over to the value expression of capital, the nature of the statement as an abstract theoretical proposition changes; for, unless we are assured that the greater value expression at the later period stands for a greater number or better quality of physical agents, the technical productivity may vary in any conceivable degree or direction, becoming even absolutely less with the greater amount of capital. The two concepts, it is true, would be the same in practice if we were speaking of the increase of capital applied to a particular industry at a given moment in which there was no change in the supply of capital in the community. But Böhm-Bawerk has chosen to discuss, not the greater roundaboutness of production in a particular industry to which more capital is applied, but the greater roundaboutness in industry as a whole where the value expression of capital has increased. That is, he discusses not the case of a static supply of capital as a whole, but that of a changing supply of capital, the change being measured by the value expression. The conclusion he draws, therefore, is not theoretically sound; for there is no certainty or even probability that the two features of effectiveness and value will vary at the same rate, or, in the extreme case, that more “capital,” containing a larger element of various scarcity values, will represent productive agents even as great or (technically) as effective as those of smaller value did in the preceding period.
Regarding the second premise, first link, Böhm-Bawerk must show that the longer production period is identical with the use of “more capital.” Let us examine his concept of capital in this immediate connection.14
Böhm-Bawerk answers the question “What is capital?” not by using either of the definitions referred to in the last paragraph, but by a figure of speech intended to direct attention to what it has been and to the source of its value. “Previous labor,” he says, “is a rough but essentially true definition.” But he adds in a note, “It is more exact to say, stored-up, previously applied productive force, which can be not only labor, but also valuable natural forces or uses of land.”15 Then, returning to the text: “a small capital evidently represents little previous labor, a large capital much. A capital of fifty florins can represent, in the extremest case, one-sixth of a labor year when the common wage is three hundred florins a year,” etc. This comes near to the discredited labor value theory; and the author, seeing the difficulty, adds in a note: “Probably considerably less, because on the one hand comes into play a higher paid quality of labor, and on the other the value of the stock of capital goods cannot by any means be resolved into labor or wages respectively, but contains for a considerable part accumulated interest, profits, monopoly gains, and the like.”16 Despite these important alterations in the meaning of the term “capital” the author has gone on to use it in the simpler, unmodified form, drawing, as to the nature and effect of capital as a whole, conclusions which at the most can be true of that part of capital reducible to terms of previous labor. This conception of capital is confusing by reason of its attempt at a simplicity that is untrue to the facts. It must be noted, however, that it is a value concept of capital. The capital embodies a value which it derives from the value of the labor that has produced it (sometimes thought of together with the value of all the other factors admitted in the note above quoted). It is a value concept despite the use of the terms “labor-month” and “labor-year”; for the labor can be spoken of as representing a certain fraction of the value of the capital only after the amount of the labor itself has been expressed in terms of value, not of time.
In attempting to show the identity of the thoughts of a longer period of production and a more roundabout process (second link of second premise), he says that the ripe consumption goods needed within the year will be secured by a union of new labor with the old labor in the form of capital. It is evident to him that, when little old labor is present, the new labor must be in large proportion, and the average production period17 must be short, and vice versa. “The mass of existing capital shows how many labor-months are on their way at any one time, have been performed as labor, and have not yet arrived at the goal of ripened enjoyment. If now, with a capital of fifty florins per head, no more than two labor-months are on their way at one time, it indicates, in an unmistakable way, a shorter average duration of the roundabout method adopted than when, with a mass of capital ten or a hundred fold greater, twenty or two hundred labor-months at once are in the transition stage of unripe intermediate product.” This being to Böhm-Bawerk quite “evident,” he believes that production with the aid of more capital is identical with the lengthening of the average production period, and hence with the adoption of a more roundabout method of production.18
FAILURE OF THE ARGUMENT TO IDENTIFY INCREASE OF CAPITAL AND ROUNDABOUTNESS.
We must, for several reasons, question the argument by which are thus identified the thoughts of a larger capital, a longer production period, a more roundabout process, and a greater productiveness. First, in Böhm-Bawerk's concept the natural agents are not a part of capital; and, unless the natural agents, the fertile soil and natural forces, are as great per capita, the technical productiveness of the larger capital may be less than before. His conclusion, therefore, would hold good at most with the added proviso: the amount and effectiveness of natural agents increasing proportionally. In an extreme case conceivable the greater supply of capital (however measured) might be more than offset in its technical effect by a smaller per capita equipment of natural agents.
Secondly, the argument contains the fallacy of the vicious circle by implying the rate of interest. With a value concept the “amount of capital” corresponding to a given product each year varies with the rate of discount in capitalization.19 If the prevailing interest is at 20 per cent., an annual product valued at 10 supports a capitalization of fifty; but, if the interest falls to 1 percent., the same product supports five hundred. Of the two parts of the proposition that more capital means a greater productivity and a more roundabout process, the first portion, therefore, is unsound unless it be qualified by the phrase: provided that the rate of interest has remained the same. But it is the change of the rate of interest which he is attempting to explain through a change in the technical productiveness.
Thirdly, the argument is unsound in the degree to which the capital contains accumulated interest or monopoly gains. It sounds plausible to say that, if the capital per head represents a value one-sixth the average value of a year's labor, the process is one-sixth as roundabout, and the production period is one-sixth as long, as if the capital were just equal in value to a year's labor. But this is an entirely hypothetical proposition, whose truth depends on the fact assumed in the “if”; and the author himself has hastened to add that a considerable part of the value of the capital is due to other elements, among them accumulated interest.20 If the value of the capital always can be traced back to labor, and two amounts of capital are proportionate to the labor that has been put into them, then, on an average, the length of the production period would be the quotient of the value of the capital divided by the value of a year's labor. But every unit of capital that represents the other sources of capital disturbs and falsifies that relation. If one hundred and fifty of the three hundred florins capital consists of accumulated interest, the capital represents a production period of only one-half of a year: if two hundred and fifty florins so consists, the production period would be only one-sixth of a year, the same as if capital were only fifty florins, all due to labor.21 The proposition in question will be true, therefore, only with a third proviso reading thus: an increase of capital is identical with a more roundabout process, provided that the increase represents labor only, and not accumulated interest or monopoly gains.
A fourth objection to the argument is that, in admitting the value of the uses of land into the value of the stock of capital, Böhm-Bawerk has given a blow that wrecks the capital concept that he employs. What is it that goes roundabout in production when capital is used? According to Böhm-Bawerk's idea it is not the capital itself, but something that passes through and abides for a time in the capital. The capital, he says, is previous labor; or, correcting himself,22 it is, more exactly, “stored up previously applied productive force, which can be not only labor, but also valuable natural forces or uses of land.” Their value is thought of as originating or given off at a certain moment; and, evidently, it is this value, rather than the physical things, which goes a roundabout journey, and at length arrives at the goal of finished, enjoyable goods. The average production period must be the average time that elapses, throughout the industrial system, between the moment that a use of land originates and the moment it reaches its goal. Any valuable use of land that is not yet matured or available for present wants is a postponed or future value. Anything, such as a table or a house, that contains a number of these uses owes a part of its present value, therefore, to the capitalization or discounting of these future uses at a prevailing rate of discount. In this way the uses of land are made a part of the capital value of all things. Farms or mines have values due to the capitalization of the value of their uses; and this, by Böhm-Bawerk's admission, is just what constitutes any capital value. There is left no logical or consistent test to divide capital, as formally defined by Böhm-Bawerk, from those things which he would exclude from that concept.
If we put together these objections to the argument, we have it in this form: if it were true in any case, it would be true (1) only when the diminishing returns of natural agents did not offset it; (2) when the change in the amount of capital is not merely the expression of a change in the rate of interest; (3) when the increase does not represent accumulated interest or monopoly gains embodied in capital; and (4) when the increase is not the capitalization of the uses of natural agents. There is involved in Böhm-Bawerk's argument, therefore, the fallacy of an unsound premise. If all capital does not consist of, or owe its value to, previous labor, a false conclusion is drawn when the length of the production period is assumed to be fixed by the relation between the stock of capital, counted as previous labor, and the annual amount of labor. Arithmetical examples of the kind given by him23 prove nothing as to the proposition advanced unless it can be shown that the increase in the capital represents labor only.
If the concepts of the roundabout process and of the average production period are so defective, and yet have obtained wide currency, it must be because they contain a partial truth. In fact, the author at the outset transfers the reader's thought to the point from which the conceptions appear simple and reasonable. This may be better understood if we state the proposition as a hypothetical truth. If the value of capital consisted entirely of the value of labor, if the amount of capital varied directly with the “amount of labor” and with nothing else, if capital were distributed to the industries of longer and shorter processes in a fixed proportion, then every increase in the ratio of existing capital to current labor would represent an increase of the average period of labor between the application of labor and its fruition. But every one of the “ifs” is contrary to reality. The author states the proposition with all these conditions implied, makes, in a note, passing comment on its inexactness, fails to see how his general proposition is affected, and goes on to draw a conclusion.
Hasty and rough observation seems to support the proposition; for, taking the extreme cases, evidently a larger proportion of the efforts of men is applied to current wants in primitive society, while in a more advanced and richer society a larger proportion is embodied in durable agents. But, labor being only one of the factors entering into the amount of capital, the ratio of capital to current labor does not express at all exactly the length of “the roundabout process.” The amount of capital varies as a function of several factors, of which labor is only one. Most important of the neglected factors is the rate of interest,—that is, the rate at which all of the existing rentals, no matter what their nature, shall be capitalized, and shall enter into the value expression of the stock of capital.
FUTILITY OF THE CONCEPT OF AN “AVERAGE PRODUCTION PERIOD.”
Were all the foregoing objections beside the mark, there still would remain a fundamental weakness in the conception of the average production period, unfitting it to bear any part in the solution of the theoretical interest problem. It involves the fallacy of averages. The production period, with Böhm-Bawerk, is not an average time in one industry, but an average period during which the value of the total productive force of the community is supposed to be embodied in the total existing body of capital.24 Such an average of widely divergent facts is not the significant thing in the explanation of interest. The average production period, whose length is assumed to express the degree of roundaboutness of the productive process, is an average of a multitude of different productive processes of every conceivable length. In a great many industries the labor is said to mature almost immediately; in others, only after a long period. If at one time one-half of a given capital, and at a later time one-tenth, is employed in industries with a short-time period, the average productive period would be lengthened without any change in the amount of capital.
In the second case we might have the following:—
The average production period for industry as a whole (even if it were correct to conceive of it as Böhm-Bawerk does) would have no logical relation to the productiveness of capital or to the rate of interest. What is significant is not the average period, but the marginal application. One cannot explain market price by an average of the subjective estimates of all the buyers and sellers. In any particular industry at any moment the use of more capital (value) may, perhaps, yield a larger product, either technical or economic; but this may even accompany a decrease of the average production period for industry as a whole, if the capital has been transferred from an industry with a longer production period to one with a shorter. Along the margin of possible uses the existing stock of capital is applied, equalizing thus the rate of interest in the different uses, and altering likewise the ratio of labor and capital invested. In determining this distribution, however, the average production period, as Böhm-Bawerk conceives of it, has no causal influence whatever. It is itself nothing but an arithmetical resultant of all the changes that have taken place. It is a figment of the same kind as the wage fund. A lengthening of the average productive period could therefore accompany as well a fall as a rise of the productiveness of capital.
It remains to mention the mathematical support for his proposition by which the author is himself misled. Taking up his final discussion of the roundabout process, he says:25 “I venture to think we may now assume it as proved,” and then he frames some arbitrary arithmetical tables “to represent the product which may be turned out by increasingly lengthy processes under the picture of a series increasing in a certain ratio, regular or irregular.” In the first one he represents a month of labor in 1888, for that year producing 100 units; for 1890, producing 200; for 1892, producing 400, etc. Plainly, these figures add no proof whatever to the proposition, which, therefore, is in no way strengthened by the statement that, “whatever period of time we take as our standpoint of comparison, the earlier (present) amount of productive instruments is seen to be superior, technically, to the equally great later (future) amount.”26 When the author goes on to the further proposition, that technical superiority is accompanied by a superiority of value, he declares that it “may be made absolutely convincing by mathematical evidence.”27 The “evidence,” however, is merely another set of illustrative tables, arbitrarily constructed on the assumption of the truth of the proposition in question. Introduced with the statements quoted in the third line of this paragraph, they are dismissed with the remark: “on the single assumption that longer methods of production lead generally to a greater product, it is a necessary result.”28
THE CAPITAL CONCEPT AS THE SOURCE OF ERROR.
The validity of the assumption being the question under consideration, we return from the mathematical evidence to the question of the greater productiveness of the roundabout process. Glancing back over the many difficulties in the author's argument, it appears that they may all be traced more or less clearly to the defects of his capital concept. In advance of his time, and presenting a twentieth-century theory of value, he has been content to use the clumsy eighteenth-century capital concept. This involves him in inconsistencies at every step. An advocate of the theory of marginal utility, he yet employs what is essentially a cost-of-production concept of capital, and, despite his various statements to the contrary, he is looking to the past rather than to the future of goods for an explanation of their value. It is “previous labor” and not future utility, regardless of the quantity, time, or value (however it may be measured), that distracts his attention, and fixes it on the figment of the average production period of industry as a whole. A value concept of capital, wherein capital is thought of as merely the present worth or capitalized value of the future uses of existing agents, makes the conception of the roundabout process appear fragmentary, inadequate, and false because only a half-truth. Almost immediately he is compelled to go over to the value concept of capital, for that is the only one that permits of the discussion of interest as a percentage of the principal. Thus at every step the two ideas conflict, a greater capital at one moment meaning more physical instruments, at another meaning durable instruments of greater value expressed in terms of present goods. Before beginning his task, Böhm-Bawerk has expressed the hope that he might give a solution of the problem of interest that “invents nothing and assumes nothing.”29 The conceptions of the average period of production and of the roundabout process appear to err both in inventing and assuming.
RELATION OF ROUNDABOUTNESS TO THE OTHER GROUNDS FOR THE HIGHER VALUATION OF PRESENT GOODS.
Our author says he considers that the “statement of how the productivity of capital works into and together with the other two grounds30 of the higher valuation of present goods, is one of the most difficult points in the theory of interest and, at the same time, the one which must decide the fate of that theory.”31 There is a flaw in the argument at this crucial point. Foregoing a detailed criticism here, let us observe that the technical productiveness is not co-ordinate with the other causes assigned, and that the words “present wants” and “future wants” are used in the propositions in different senses. In the statement that present goods are worth more than future goods because of differences in wants and provision for wants, the present goods are objects which confer enjoyments or satisfactions at the present moment: the future goods are the same goods thought of as secured at a future moment. But, in the statement that present goods are technically more productive than future goods, the “present goods” are not “present enjoyments,” but “intermediate goods,” or “productive agents,” to use the phrases elsewhere employed by Böhm-Bawerk. Whether they will mature physically and become enjoyable goods in the future, or whether they will merely permit the securing of future goods, in either case they may be said to represent rather future goods (enjoyments) than present goods in the sense of the other proposition. To identify the two things as present goods is entirely misleading. It would be a far more consistent use of language to call intermediate, or productive, agents “future goods” than present goods.
To Böhm-Bawerk these three reasons together seem to make a complete explanation. The first two reasons account for the agio on present over future consumption goods, the third accounts for the agio of present production over future production goods,—i.e., those available at a later period. But there is only a mechanical or arithmetical completeness: there is no logical unity in the explanation.32 A satisfactory theory of interest is not attained until time differences in all kinds of goods are traced back to a single principle. That principle is the greater want-satisfying power of present as compared with future consumption goods. The essence of the explanation must be found not in technical production, but in the subjective comparision of goods.
THE WEAKNESS OF PRODUCTIVITY THEORIES.
It has been a surprise to many students of Böhm-Bawerk to find that he has presented a theory, the most prominent feature of which is the technical productiveness of roundabout processes. His criticism of the productivity theories of interest has been of such a nature as to lead to the belief that he utterly rejected them.33 But evidently such is not the case. Critics have pretty generally agreed that the theory of the roundabout process is a productivity theory of interest; and it appears from Böhm-Bawerk's later statement that he does not object to the productivity theory as a partial, but as an exclusive, explanation of interest. He believes particularly that interest on consumption goods cannot be explained in that way. But he says repeatedly that the idea of the roundabout process contains the essential truth in the productivity theory, and he uses it to explain that part of interest yielded by produced goods employed in lengthened productive processes. Böhm-Bawerk's theory, therefore, so far as it rests upon the productiveness of roundabout processes, is a productivity theory; and as such it is to be judged by the tests which he has set up, and rightly, in criticizing such an argument. The essence of the interest problem is to explain a surplus of value over the value of the capital employed.34 It is not enough to show that more capital (or a more roundabout process) will produce more products, or to show that the aggregate of products has a greater value than those secured before. The value of the capital being derived from the value of the products, the more the products (in value), the more the capital (value), unless the interest rate (the thing to be explained) keeps the capital from increasing proportionately.
In criticizing others, Böhm-Bawerk has said:35 “I grant that capital actually possesses the physical productivity ascribed to it.... But there is not one single feature in the whole circumstance to indicate that this greater amount of goods must be worth more than the capital consumed in its production; and it is this phenomenon of surplus value we have to explain.” Now, coming to this explanation in his own positive argument,36 he asks regarding the earlier productive instrument which he has shown to be technically superior: “But is it superior also in the height of its marginal utility and value? Certainly it is. For, if in every conceivable department of wants for the supply of which we may or shall employ it, it puts more means of satisfaction at our disposal, it must have a greater importance for our well-being.” This argument curiously has involved in it the whole question; for, if the importance of the future use were, at the present moment, always greater than the present use, everything would be kept for the future. The reason why this is not done is that the future uses are discounted at the prevailing rate of interest. What we must demand at this point from the author, according to his own canons of criticism, is some proof that the greater technical product of the future has a greater value at this moment than the value of the capital consumed in it. This he quite fails to give. Instead, he says, after confessing that sometimes the opposite is the case: “For one and the same person at one and the same point of time the greater amount has always the greater value.”37 But the crucial question why the greater amount may have a less value at the present moment, when the two products are at two points of time, is not touched. The problem of interest is one that involves a ratio between the value of the capital and the value of the interest. The fact that the value of a given number of productive agents may be the same in any one of a dozen possible uses, though in some of them very long “roundabout processes” would give enormous sums of products and in others smaller amounts are at once secured, shows that the amount of technical product may diverge indefinitely from the value. Böhm-Bawerk has not bridged the gulf between the technical productivity and the surplus of value over the capital investment any better than those whom he has criticized.
RELATION OF TECHNICAL PRODUCTIVITY TO THEORIES OF INTEREST.
If the foregoing is true, most of what is characteristic or significant in Böhm-Bawerk's Positive Theory must be rejected.38 It must be said that he starts with brilliant intuitions into the true character of the interest problem, only to go astray on the road of the old productivity theory. Let us venture an opinion as to the nature of the difficulty and the direction that must be taken to reach a correct conclusion.
The initial error in the older theories of interest was mistaking the nature of the problem. Interest and rent were believed to be co-ordinate and essentially similar aspects of value, the difference lying in the kind of agents with which they were connected. Rent was thought to be due to the surplus value of the products of the soil, and interest in general to the surplus value of the products from capital. Böhm-Bawerk seems at many points of his earlier criticism ready to break away from this; but, in adopting the concept of capital that he employs, he made a correct solution of the problem impossible. He looks upon capital as consisting of certain kinds of agents, and of interest as the surplus value or product peculiar to those agents. Glimpses of a different view appear, but one which certainly falls far short of a correct one.39
Let us suggest the view that rent and interest are very dissimilar aspects of the value of goods. Rent has to do with “production” or scarce and desirable uses of things. To the interest theorist this is in the nature, one might almost say, of an ultimate fact. The interest theory begins with the valuation of these different rents or incomes, distributed through different periods of time. The “productiveness” of a material agent is merely its quality of giving a scarce and desirable service to men. To explain this service of goods is the essence of the theory of rent. Given this and a prospective series of future services, however, the problem of interest arises, which is essentially that of explaining the valuation set on the future uses contained in goods. Interest thus expressing the exchange ratio of present and future services or uses is not and cannot be confined to any class of goods: it exists wherever there is a future service. It is not dependent on the roundaboutness of the process; for it exists where there is no process whatever, if there be merely a postponement of the use for the briefest period. A good interest theory must develop the fertile suggestion of Böhm-Bawerk that the interest problem is not one of product, but of the exchange of product,—a suggestion he has not himself heeded. It must give a simple and unified explanation of time value wherever it is manifest. It must set in their true relation the theory of rent as the income from the use of goods in any given period, and interest as the agio or discount on goods of whatever sort, when compared throughout successive periods. For such a theory the critical work of Böhm-Bawerk was an indispensable condition; but, the more his positive theory is studied, the more evident it is that it has missed the goal.
The Relations between Rent and Interest
NEGATIVE CRITICISM OF THE CONVENTIONAL RENT AND INTEREST CONCEPTS
1. Logical clearness and practical needs call for a reexamination and restatement of the economic concepts of rent and interest.
This proposition expresses the thought of many contemporary economic students. The thought is reflected in the recent remarkable revival of interest in this phase of economic theory. The truth of the proposition is, however, not recognized by all. Some look upon the Ricardian doctrine of rent as an eternal verity, and deem the agitators of new economic concepts to be the pernicious disturbers of theoretical calm. Some economists cling to the traditional views as some theologians cling to outgrown creeds, oppressed with the thought that if the ancient faith gives way nothing can take its place. With rock-ribbed conservatism argument is vain, but such an attitude has one considerable justification: the recent rent controversy has been almost entirely of a negative character. The period of destructive criticism has elapsed; but erroneous concepts will not be discarded until positive and practically applicable ones are put in their places.
2. The generally accepted definitions of rent and of interest are imperfect in that they mark only a small portion of the boundaries of the concepts actually employed.
Criticism of definitions should not be unreasonably exacting. It is sufficient that the definition state the essential characteristic of the concept, for it is impossible to include in a sentence all the logical and practical developments of the central thought. It is no vital fault that the statements that rent is income from natural agents, and that interest is the income from products used in production, do not tell everything about rent and interest. But the prevailing belief is that all of the essential contrasts of rent and interest so much dwelt upon for a century past, result from the one defined and simple difference as to the kind of goods yielding the income. In fact, however, the concepts of rent and interest are not developed along parallel lines, other most fundamental terms being unconsciously introduced into them. The prevailing concepts of rent and interest, therefore, have an exceedingly complex character, and what is worse for clear thinking, this complexity is concealed beneath a simple form.
The two propositions above state the negative portion of the thesis to be here maintained. Part I of this paper, given to negative criticism, is continued in propositions 3 a, b, 4, 5 a, b, c, and summarized in 6, these together forming a demonstration that the conventional rent concept contains several conflicting thoughts. Part II, consisting of propositions 7 a, b, and 8 is an examination of two possible but inexpedient ways of making the rent and interest concepts formally consistent, by developing propositions 3 and 4. Part III, the positive solution, points out in propositions 9 a, b, c, the logical and practical line of distinction to be found in propositions 5 a, b, c, when they are consistently developed, and concludes in 10 and 11 with the outline of a new theory of distribution.
3a. Since the beginning of modern economic theory, rent and interest have been defined by social marks; rent has been said to be the income of land owners, interest that of merchants, manufacturers and city men of wealth.
This distinction deserves mention, when the most recent and one of the keenest critics in this field expresses himself as follows: “It is a commonplace of historical economics that land was first given the rank of a factor in production coördinate with labor and capital for the simple reason that in England, the home of classical political economy, the landlords formed a social class distinct from the capitalists and laborers.”1 Adolph Held, probably the first to suggest this origin, states quite dogmatically, without discussion, that “the social classification appeared so sharply in England that Adam Smith accepted it without question, and accordingly distinguished the kinds of incomes without inquiring how far property in land and capital belong together.”2 However it originated, this thought of rent as a personal income of the members of a social class, persists to-day, as may be seen in many representative definitions.3 The conscious distinguishing of the conceptions of economic and contract incomes is a recent phase of thought, as yet but slightly reflected in the formal definitions. Ownership, though frequently thus included in the definition, has not played an essential part in economic discussion because, as used, the definition became a mere truism. Goods and incomes were not classified according as they belonged to members of different social classes, but, on the contrary, social classes were distinguished according as they were receiving incomes from particular kinds of goods. The income of the landlord as a person was made up of the yield from such varied agents that to the personal mark (membership in the land-holding class), necessarily was added at once an impersonal mark (the kinds of agents yielding the income). A man was considered to be a landlord if his most important income came from land. As the thought of rent as landlord's income and as income from land never have been very sharply distinguished, we may designate this second phase of the thought as 3b.
3b. Rent, in the conventional treatment, was therefore said to be the income derived from natural agents, and interest that from produced, or artificial agents.
When this is made, as it was, the central thought of rent, that part of the income of landlords that is derived from improvements is excluded and is declared to be interest. A minor fallacy then appears in that rent is either landlord's income or income from land, as is most convenient to the immediate purpose of the writer. The principal thought in rent remains, however, that of income from the use of natural agents. The grave difficulties in the application of this thought will be later criticized (in 7b). Other ideas now to be noted were, however, from the first, associated with the original thought.
4. The characterization of rent as that income from material agents which does not enter into cost of production, and of interest as the income which does so enter, was a shifting of the central thought of the concept; what was, at first, thought to be a merely incidental peculiarity of land rent, became its essential feature, and then the center of a more general concept of rent.
If this idea did not originate with Malthus and Ricardo, it was emphasized strongly in their criticisms of Smith as the main peculiarity of land rent. The supposed peculiarity of the relation of land rent to price rested on fallacious reasoning, due to the unconscious introduction of new conditions into the concept.4 The gradual displacement of the earlier conception of rent as income from land, by the no-cost-of-production concept, is one of the interesting chapters in the history of economic theory. First, the no-cost camel thrust only its nose into the tent, then it crowded out entirely the former occupant. To-day the no-cost concept is in large degree dominant, although the old definitions, the old arguments, and many inconsistent conclusions of the older treatment remain. Marshall's treatment of rent and quasi-rents shows the orthodox order of distributive theory dissolved into chaos by illogically conserving the older thought while developing a newer one. The quasi-rent doctrine, however, takes a long step in the right direction, for it recognizes the likeness of the yield of land and of other concrete goods.
What is most pertinent to the present purpose is that this thought of rent, as usually developed, is in its nature a compromise. The old idea and the new are entertained, together. The same old formal definition is retained; the newer distinction, brought in to modify and explain, only complicates and confuses the rent concept. Certainly none of the contemporary supporters of this view have as yet framed a definition that is more than temporizing. But even if a choice were made between these two essentially different concepts of rent (and of interest) ambiguity would not be banished, for in all the older discussion of rent and interest another distinction has been assumed whose significance usually has been quite unsuspected, but which in fact contains the key to the problem.
5a. An essentially different distinction between rent and interest is tacitly introduced into the discussion when the amount of the bearer, or source, of rent is expressed in physical terms as to quantity and quality, while the bearer, or source, of interest is expressed in the general value unit as a principal sum.
That this distinction is made a part of the conventional concepts will be recognized by all students of economic theory. Equally evident is it when once attention is called to the fact, that this is done without recognizing the changed point of view thus taken toward the two kinds of goods. The Columbus of economic theory who stood this egg on end is Professor John B. Clark. All the standard texts declare, in discussing interest, that capital consists of concrete goods, and is neither mere money nor mere abstraction, yet at the same time they speak of capital as of uniform quality and as yielding a uniform rate of income. This is said to contrast capital strikingly with land, which is measured by the acre, and differs from unit to unit. Professor Clark, in his brilliant criticism of this confused thought, has vividly pictured the varying grades of “capital goods” as he calls them, and has shown that artificial agents can be viewed in concrete form and expressed in physical terms in the same way as natural agents usually are. Most students, therefore, are ready to recognize the truth of a statement that would have been startling some years ago: the contrasts supposed to reside in the objective differences between natural agents and capital are but subjective differences due to the points of view taken by the thinker when he chooses to express the quantity of goods in different modes.
These differing modes of expressing the bearers of the two incomes involve corresponding differences in the conceptions of their maintenance and of their income. As these conceptions are but phenomenal forms of the thought expressed in 5 a, the statement of them will be numbered 5 b and 5 c.
5b. In estimating its net income, the bearer of rent is thought of as materially unimpaired by use, being preserved in identical form or in kind; the bearer of interest is thought of as maintained of undiminished value, expressed in terms of some conventional standard.
This is a contrast in point of view that is entirely unrelated with the contrast presented in the formal definition, and confusion results. The taking of different points of view is allowable; indeed, it is necessary if all aspects of any subject are to be considered. The inconsistency is in unconsciously shifting the point of view and believing that the differing natures of the objects were the cause of the differences observed. Two similar houses viewed, the one from the front and the other from the rear, appear to be very differently planned. The one blind man who got his idea of the elephant by touching the tusk is said to have argued long with the other who had caught hold of the animal's tail. Debates as hopeless as this, result from the shifting of the concepts here under discussion.
A side light on the theoretical analysis above may be given by a brief suggestion of the historical conditions in which the distinction took its rise. The rent contract, almost universally employed in the Middle Ages in transferring the temporary control of wealth, involves a legal fiction. Land, houses, cattle, whose use is delegated to the tenant, must, according to the terms of the contract usual in such cases, be returned in the same condition as when borrowed. The performance of this contract is literally and physically impossible; but by means of agreements as to repairs and replacements, the agents can be restored in equally good condition. Every rent contract for the use of agricultural land is in its terms a disproof of the idea that rent is paid alone for the original and indestructible qualities of the soil; yet the fiction of a perpetual rent-bearer deceived Ricardo and has continued to deceive. The interest contract came into use much later, as a money economy arose; hence, its employment was confined, until the last century, almost entirely to money loans and to the transfer of city wealth. This chance historical parallelism between land, rent, country and landlord on the one hand, and machines, interest, city and merchant on the other, explains many of the fallacies that beset economic thought in the first conscious attempts to analyze value.5 The rent contract and the interest contract are not in any essential way connected with land and produced agents respectively, and the chance use of them for transferring certain kinds of goods has within the last century become less and less common. The contrasting form of contract in rent and interest (and a corresponding contrast in the mode of estimating the income bearer in economic rent and interest) was introduced into the older concepts alongside of the formally recognized characters, making the concepts complex and contradictory.
5c. Contract rent (corresponding with the thoughts in 5a and 5b) is treated by all writers as an absolute amount, not as a percentage of the income bearer; contract interest is treated as a percentage of a principal sum. A similar distinction is made in the case of economic rent and economic interest at certain moments.
The conception of economic income being more subtle than that of contractual income, is less easily grasped. Contractual income is personal, economic income is impersonal. While it was contractual rent that drew the attention of the earlier economic students, it is economic rent (using the term in a broader sense than mere land rent) that constitutes the real problem in economic theory.
Here also a word of economic history throws light on the origin and occasion of this distinction as applied to the contractual incomes. The theorists of 125 years ago found contract rent in extensive practical use. While mainly used in reference to the income of land, the word rent was taken in a much more general sense both in English and in the continental languages. Houses and machines were then rented as pianos and automobiles are now. At first the income from land was specifically distinguished as “land rent,” but Ricardo's authority specialized the term “rent” in English economic theory, and, ever since, economists have struggled in vain to establish their word usage in the place of that sanctioned by many centuries. A part of every conventional discussion of rent is given to explaining that “in the economic sense” it means only the income from land considered apart from improvements.
The renting contract doubtless was the exclusive mode by which the temporary use of wealth was given and acquired in primitive communities. It certainly continued throughout the feudal period to be all but universal in the rural economies. The interest contract was an impossibility until the rise of a money economy. Money came into use first in the cities, and there also was felt most strongly the inconvenience of the renting contract. The ventures of the merchant at home and abroad required goods so various in quantity and quality, so difficult to measure exactly except in terms of value, that the borrowing of them was hardly possible except in the form first of general purchasing power, that is, under the interest contract. And it is so to-day. The differing practice was due to business convenience, not to an essential difference in the economic nature of the goods, and while in fact machines can be and are “rented,” land and other natural agents are often temporarily acquired nowadays under the interest contract. As contractual incomes both rent and interest are found alternating in practice, and just because the contracts are so different in outer form, the incomes appear to have in many ways essentially different characters.
6. There are thus included in the generally accepted concepts of rent, without formal recognition, three essentially different and often conflicting thoughts:
In each case rent is in contrast with interest which is (a) received by a different social class, and from a different class of agents, or (b) has a supposedly different relation to the value of products, or (c) is estimated as a percentage of a principal sum or value of wealth.6
If the incomes from wealth are to be grouped logically and classified practically as rent and interest, the three foregoing tests must be applied to each income as it appears. It is assumed in the conventional treatment that these tests give consistent results. Unless, however, the three tests are logically related, it is incredible that the results of their application should coincide in more than a small number of cases. Indeed, every contradiction that is possible by combining these independent tests occurs at one time or another in the conventional treatment of rent. The entire collapse of the old rent doctrine has been prevented only by failure to apply the tests to all cases and in full measure. The thought is shifted as convenience suggests. Starting with the formal definition framed about the first thought, the treatment shifts to the second or third. Such a method cannot be defended as a legitimate employment of a continuity concept. Continuity does not justify the cross-logic of a three-fold or four-fold principle of classification. These is no continuity in the jump from natural agents to consumer's rent, or from landlord's income to the contract to restore in kind.
In concluding the merely negative part of this paper it should be reiterated that propositions 3, 4 and 5, summarized in 6, are to be interpreted collectively. In the foregoing argument it has not been maintained that any one of the three principal thoughts contained in these three propositions cannot be made formally logical if it is developed by itself consistently. It is, however, maintained here that when these several thoughts are employed together without a recognition of the resulting complexity, fallacious contrasts and conclusions result. Differences between rent and interest, that are assumed to arise out of the nature of the two classes of agents, are but the reflection of the changing subjective attitudes of the theorists.
In Part II is to be considered the logical character of the concepts resulting from a consistent development of each of the first two thoughts here recognized.
EXCLUSION OF TWO POSSIBLE FORMAL SOLUTIONS OF THE INCONSISTENCIES
7a. Formal consistency might be gained if the distinction between rent and interest were made to turn on the difference in the social classes that receive the incomes; but this is almost purposeless in economic theory.
A merely formal concept of rent might be framed about the thought of a social class. Rent might be defined as the income of wealthy men or of those moving in the best society. English conditions naturally suggested to the thinkers of a century ago the contrast of agricultural land holders and city men of wealth. But it is safe to say that no such social classification ever has been or ever could be presented that is either exact or significant enough to serve in the analysis of value. The economic theory of value is essentially an attempt to explain impersonally the origin and degree of importance of goods. The social class concept of rent thus involves a distinction not primarily economic, and one that is incapable of even a moderate degree of exactness in practical application. When, moreover, membership in a social class is tested by ownership of a particular kind of agent, the social aspect of the concept almost disappears. The connection of the thought of land rent and landlords as a class could continue only in the peculiar social conditions of England, and then it corresponded only in a broad, not in an exact way, with realities.
7b. Formal consistency is possible if the distinction between rent and interest be made to turn solely on the difference in the classes of physical agents that yield them; but this distinction is quite incapable of practical application.
The only classification of wealth that ever has been suggested for this purpose is that into natural and artificial, or unproduced and produced agents, or land and “capital.” Such a classification may be required to meet two tests. It is expedient only if the two classes of agents can be practically distinguished by marks or evidences that can be taken account of in the practical world; it is logical only if it is consistently applied.
Land in an unimproved state is rare if not unknown in modern societies. As nearly every concrete thing is a bit of natural material adapted artificially to some degree to man's use, everything according to this conception should have in it elements of capital and interest, and elements of land and rent. No practicable method of deciding whether a thing is land or capital ever has been suggested, much less applied.7 When one considers the nature of the case, it appears impossible even to conceive of such a test.
Therefore economic theory, unable to make the division between land and capital along a concrete and objective line, has been led to make it along an abstract line. Rent was said to be the income from land “considered as unimproved,” or “considered apart from improvements”; while interest was that part of the income of land that was to be considered as due to improvements or to produced agents. Ricardo put it that rent is paid to the landlord for the use “of the original and indestructible qualities of the soil.” Few writers that have accepted the Ricardian definition, have failed to apologize for the evident error in the phrase. Ricardo apparently meant, not that all qualities were indestructible, but that they might be spoken of as undestroyed, if annually repaired. Indeed it would be difficult to find a writer that does not, both in theoretical and practical problems, give up the impossible task of distinguishing all the value due to improvements on land. It is so much easier to wave the difficulty aside by “incorporating” or “merging” the improvements into the land. It has not been recognized that the original thought has thus been departed from, that the practical difficulty has been slurred over, and that a metaphysical division has been substituted for a concrete classification. The designating of an improved field as land or natural agents, and of an improved piece of iron as capital, becomes a purely arbitrary matter. The test is not found in immobility. Are the Suez Canal, the Hoosac Tunnel, the ploughed field, land or capital? A touch of human labor is at one time believed to convert the entire material into capital, a larger amount of labor at another time is declared merely to incorporate itself with the land and become indistinguishable from it.8 The notion that it is a simple matter to distinguish between the yield of natural agents and that of improvements is fanciful and confusing, is responsible for many errors, including the cruder part of the single tax doctrine. The distinction doubtless more nearly approaches business realities in the case of city building sites than in that of agricultural land. It must, however, be maintained that the objective classification of land and capital as natural and artificial agents is a task that always must transcend human power of discrimination.
The vagueness of the line between natural agents and capital is increased by the fact that money and artificial agents measured as “capital” can be and are so often invested in land. Where land becomes a commonly marketed form of wealth, the classification of rent and interest according to the social class of owners becomes meaningless, and the classification accorded to kind of agents grows quite out of harmony with business usage. An attempt to meet the difficulty is seen in the more recent contrast between capital from the individual and capital from the social point of view, which is an abandonment of the distinction according to the class of agents in most of its possible applications. This complicates instead of solving the difficulty, which must be logically met.9
8. Formal consistency may be gained if the distinction between rent and interest is made to turn on their supposed relation to cost of production.
It is always a scientific service to carry to its extreme possibilities any abstract distinction, for thus only can be made apparent its merits and defects. In the gradual enlargement of the no-cost-of-production notion of land rent (noted in proposition 4) until it becomes the essential thought in the rent concept, the view of Mr. John A. Hobson represents nearly this ultimate development.10 Moved by the desire to find a basis in the theory of rent for a juster system of distribution and of taxation, he reexamines the problem and arrives at the conclusion that “the law of rent, in its extreme application, is valid for each factor.” A fund is required as well to keep land and labor, as to keep capital in repair, above which sum, he thinks, the differential expenses of production “whether they be rent, interest, or wages, will not enter into the market price of the supply.” While he thus narrows the conception of rent in some ways, he widens it greatly in others. He retains, though after modification, the notion of a no-cost-factor, and broadens it greatly. He stops just short of rejecting the whole distinction between land and capital as unproduced and produced agents. As a result of this and other recent criticisms, a doctrine of general rent, or of quasi-rent, is the dominant idea regarding rent to-day in many minds.11 As a negative criticism Hobson's essay has the highest merits, demonstrating, as it does, how illusive are many of the supposed peculiarities of the various incomes in the older treatment of distribution. His idea of cost and “no-cost” factors is moreover closely in touch with realities, for cost in his discussion is a very concrete thing, representing the repair and replacement fund needed for each factor. Moreover, there is for the theory of social legislation much suggestiveness in the idea of the surplus feature in each income that is above “cost,” and therefore amenable to taxation. For all this, Hobson's treatment does not yield a satisfactory solution of the problem of the rent concept, notably because rent is left quite unadjusted, and unrelated to, the interest concept. Though Hobson, in concluding, expresses the hope that he has laid the basis for a “sound theory of distribution,” he recognizes the complexity of his concept and the difficulty of its application.12
The distributive system presented by Dr. C. W. Macfarlane13 is, however, a further step into abstraction. That writer, believing that any given factor may, at a given moment, have various relations to price, reaches the somewhat bewildering conclusion that land (which “includes all natural forces except labor”) and entrepreneur's service, each may yield both rent and profit; capital may yield rent, profit and interest; and labor may yield rent, profit and gain. Whether and how far any income is thus to be named depends on whether it is “price-determined” or “price-determining,” a transcendental inquiry as difficult to apply as the small boy's method of catching birds by salting their tails. As the conception that some incomes bear a peculiar relation to price grows out of fallacious reasoning, no logically sound classification of incomes can be based upon it.14 But if it were sound, it still would be the extreme of abstraction, confined to the most subtle and probably useless economic speculation. Even if such a no-cost-of-production concept of rent could be made formally logical it still would lack expediency for a theory of distribution.
POSITIVE SOLUTION OF THE THEORETICAL PROBLEM OF RENT AND INTEREST
9a. Consistency must be gained by substituting for the older futile distinctions, that between the wealth aspect and the capital aspect of material goods.
Neither the physical classification of agents, nor the metaphysical classification of abstract types of income, affords an answer to the theoretical and practical problem of rent and interest; but in the consistent development of the third important thought contained in the old and confused rent concept, the desired solution is found.15 Rent and interest, until recently, have been looked upon as corresponding respectively to two different factors of production. In recent criticism the idea of correspondence or parallelism between each factor and its income has been abandoned, but the two material factors (natural and artificial) are still retained. A better positive theory must clear up the confusion as to the differing nature of these factors. Present in the thought of the older economists, along with the distinction between natural and artificial agents, and coloring their conclusions, has been the distinction here suggested. Durable goods were sometimes thought of as yielding uses (the wealth aspect), but land was the only important class of agents that was regularly so viewed. Durable goods were sometimes thought of as saleable at their present worth (the capital aspect), but only produced agents, the materials and instruments of manufacture, were usually so viewed. Both classes of agents can be looked at consistently from either point of view, can be considered either as bearer of rent, or as discounted sum of rents, either as wealth or as capital. It is in the confusion of these contrasts that most of the old opposition between income from land and income from artificially produced agents was found. This fog is lifted when the sources of rent and of interest cease to be considered as physically distinct and objectively differing kinds of goods, and are seen to be simply the same body of income yielders, differently viewed, calculated and expressed for theoretical and practical purposes.
9b. Corresponding with the distinction between the wealth aspect and the capital aspect of material goods, are the differing thoughts as to the maintenance of the factors.
In the earlier industrial stages when exchange is rare and money but little known, it is inevitable that the uses, or rents, of durable agents should be primarily thought of. In estimating the uses, allowance must first be made for keeping the agents in physical repair. This calculation is necessary not only in making the rent contract, but in conducting the individual economy, if net income is to recur. As was shown above, the supposed durability of land and of its qualities for which rent is paid, is largely an illusion due to ignoring its constant repair. The preserving of the rent-bearer in identical form or in kind is essential to the concept of a perpetual rent.
As the money economy displaces the barter economy, and the thought moves from the valuable present rent to the present saleable value of the rent-bearer, the capital sum of value is thought of as kept intact before a net income from it is estimated. This is a primary condition of the contractual money loan, requiring the repayment of a principal sum apart from interest and this becomes the leading type of modern business calculations.
The blunder of the older economics in connecting land and rent with the one mode of calculation, and artificial agents with the other mode, has been noted above in proposition 5. Not only is it possible to view both aspects of use-bearers consistently, but clear theory and sound business practice require that this be done.
9c. As a necessary result of the distinction between the wealth and the capital aspects of agents, and of the thoughts as to the maintenance of the factors, rent must be expressed as an absolute amount, and interest as a percentage of a principal sum.
This is stated mainly for formal completeness, but it emphasizes the retention of a feature of the older treatment whose significance was unsuspected. In fact the expression of interest as a percentage marks interest as the form of income most connected with mobile and saleable agents, it makes of interest a “marginal” factor in price, a fact so much emphasized in the older treatment, it connects interest peculiarly with the element of time, as so many writers have felt it should be. Yet the percentual form of expressing interest is impossible when the income bearer is measured by physical norms, it is practically inevitable when the income bearer is expressed as a capital sum.
10. The rent and interest concepts, when looked upon as successive steps in the analysis of value, instead of as coordinate shares dividing between them the income from material agents, are made consistent internally, mutually, and with the foregoing conceptions of wealth and of capital.16
It was suggested in proposition 5 that the treatment of land rent as an absolute amount, and of interest on produced goods as a percentage of their value, grew out of prevailing practice in the contracts for the use of wealth. Either mode of expressing income may be logical if consistently employed, and if divorced from the confusing prejudice that the difference is due to the different nature of the factors yielding the two incomes. This error recognized, economic theory must abandon the old distinction as to the differing factors. What is left in place of the old rent concept? All that was best in it, freed of error: rent is the usufruct attributable to any material agent. The uses of material agents considered apart from the using up of the agents, are in this view always and only rents. This is a logical thought, a useful one and one applicable to practical problems.
When to rent has thus been assigned all current incomes from material agents there is no place for the old concept of interest as the yield of produced agents. But rents accrue at different points of time and vary in value accordingly. Present uses and future uses differ. A more or less durable agent represents a series of rents. The capital value of a good is the sum of its prospective rents and uses, discounted at a rate that reflects the prevailing premium on the present. Capitalization, thus viewed, is logically a later stage of the problem of value than is rent; and interest first appears in connection with capitalization. As the market expression of the all-pervasive premium of present over future, interest may appear in connection with any gratifications, whether they be yielded by natural or by produced, by material or by human, by durable or by perishable agents. There is not a writer from Ricardo to the present time by whom this universal application of interest is not vaguely recognized; there probably is not one by whom its application is not more or less inconsistently restricted.17
11. The propositions above imply the need of a radical restatement of the theory of distribution, and suggest its essential outlines.
The prevailing theory of distribution rests upon the idea of three (more often lately, four) objectively differing factors, to which correspond three (or four) different kinds of income. Some later, more subtle, attempts to restate the theory have left it far from realities and quite unusable. Another solution may be found by combining into a logical system the three typical modes in which goods appeal to wants. First, goods appeal directly, as want-gratifiers immediately available. Here is required a theory of wants and enjoyable goods, and the technical analysis of marginal utility. The mental process here examined is chronologically the first stage of evaluation in the history both of the individual and of the race. Secondly, goods appear as more or less durable, and may be made comparable by being considered, through repairs, to be lasting use-bearers, yielding in a given short period a group of uses. Here is the place for the theory of rents. This is chronologically the second stage of evaluation, when durable goods are thought of and expressed in terms of their usufructs. Thirdly, whenever two nonsynchronous gratifications, rents or series of rents, are exchanged, they must be discounted to their present worth to be made comparable. Here is required a theory of capitalization, that is of economic interest. This is historically as well as logically the latest stage of evaluation, characteristic of a developed money economy and of a “capitalistic” era. These three phases must be observed in every complete analysis of value. They are in some respects analogous to the three dimensions in geometry. The older economic theories were curiously crude caricatures of such an analysis. The cost-of-production theory of the exchange value of commodities, (assumed to be the whole theory of value) roughly corresponded only with the first. The old theory of land rent caught a fragmentary view of the second. The old theory of interest on a narrowly conceived class of “capital,” was an ineffective attempt to express the third. The theory of value in the present conception proceeds from the simple to the complex, from the immediate to the distant gratification, from the goods directly in contact with the senses, to those whose utility is indirect and only in expectation. While the negative criticism of the past three decades has wrecked the old distributive theory, many admirable positive contributions, widely diverse in character, converge to the solution here presented.
All taking part in this discussion have shown their belief that economic theorizing is worth while, and that theories both good and bad are affected by, and in turn affect, practical life. In accordance with this view, the leading proposition of the opening paper that the conventional concepts of rent and interest are illogical and inconsistent, has a corollary that these concepts are unfitted to explain the problems of the business world, and that another conception must be adopted.
To the frank and friendly criticisms offered in this debate, I shall reply as brevity permits. Those taking part in the discussion may be arranged in a continuity classification (the validity of which I fully admit) from those who for regard of traditional theories would overlook a lack of logic, to those who for regard of logic are willing to adopt new theories. The conservatives are far from harmonious in their beliefs, and by mutual cancellation they have left for consideration only a residuum of argument.18
The prime contention of the first part of my opening paper is not, as it was assumed by Professor Hollander to be, “the historical relativity of the traditional theories.”19 That thought is a minor one, and the brief historical paragraphs were given merely as “side lights” on the origin of the errors.20 It would be an easy task to defend and strengthen these historical references had any one of the speakers sought to controvert them at any specific point. Even the critic who first waived the whole opening paper aside as “conjectural history” gave to the historical suggestions “conditional assent.”21
Prejudgment has, I fear, caused more than one of my critics to shut his eyes to the repeatedly avowed purpose of the paper, which was to show that the traditional concepts are internally inconsistent, illogical, containing several conflicting thoughts, and that they were thus defective even in the days of Ricardo. In recognizing that some practical issues in Ricardo's time served to obscure this lack of logic, the paper had, to be sure, a suggestion of historical relativity. It is admitted by all the speakers that of recent years the emphasis on the various thoughts of these concepts has been shifted; and some would believe that this shift has cured the infirmities in logic. On the contrary I maintain that it has aggravated them. Thus, changes in industry and changes of thought have combined to enhance the difficulties inherent from the first in the older concepts.
Professor Carver has dissented generally from the negative part of the opening paper, regretting the attempt “to show that there is no basis for the scientific distinction.”22 He would explain the confusion by declaring that there are two clearly distinguishable concepts, the popular and the scientific, which at times contradict and overlap each other. As none of my critics attempted a specific disproof of this portion of my opening argument I may limit myself here to a reassertion that the socalled “scientific concept” is inconsistent in itself, that no writer has employed it without shifting thought and untenable conclusions. It is for the reader to determine whether I have not shown that the so-called “practical concept” has been confused with the so-called “scientific concept” in economists’ minds. If this is true it follows that some of the supposed contrasts between rent and interest are but the reflection of the unconscious shifting in the subjective attitude of the thinker.
A test is thus afforded for any revision of the concepts; no valid contrast can be drawn between the concepts of rent and interest where there is an unconscious change from one to another of the three conceptions that have been noted. A shifting eclecticism becomes impossible when these different thoughts are clearly recognized. My critics, however, avoid a clear-cut decision, and uphold conceptions uniting two or more discordant elements. It is not easy, therefore, to say on just what ground they take their stand. They defend in the main the attempt to distinguish between land and artificial agents objectively, but their reasons are largely drawn from supposed differences in the relation of the income to price, and yet according to their own statements this distinction is not coextensive with that of the two objective classes of agents. Moreover, their arguments involve a use of the third distinction,23 which they are endeavoring to overthrow.
This confusion may be seen in Professor Hollander's contention that the critics of the traditional distinction overlook “the composite character of the law of diminishing returns.” He says that the characteristic that suffices to “differentiate land from capital as a productive good” is its diminishing efficiency in extensive cultivation; “while capital is available.....in identical homogeneous quality with respect to extensive use.” Observe the reasoning by which this conclusion is reached.24 The assumption, however, that any particular enterpriser, in enlarging his business, is forced to take up poorer land, surely is not warranted. Except in the rare case that the particular enterpriser had been using the one best piece of land, he can hire more land as good as he has, or even better, if he cares to pay the prevailing rental, just as he can hire more and better machines. The thought evidently shifts to the old dynamic and social conception of the growing scarcity of land with increasing population, and from the particular entrepreneur to the personified total population.
There is another shift, for while the physical conception of land is retained, and it is thought of in terms of acres, the particular produced goods called capital, are thought of in terms of a value unit. This creates the illusion that the differential return is peculiar to land, and that the value units of capital are of homogeneous quality. The varying yields of land are looked at in a way that makes them necessarily appear as differentials, and the varying yields of other agents are by reason of the mode of their capital expression, converted from differential incomes into homogeneous capitalized sums. What is this capital but the incomes (or I should call them rents) of productive goods, capitalized at the prevailing rate of interest? A given rent thus corresponds to one unit of capital, a double rent to two units of homogeneous capital, and a free good, or rentless unit, to no capital at all. This capitalization of rents is possible in the case of land also, the price of land being the sum of the anticipated future rents, discounted to their present worth; and the enterpriser can purchase x dollars’ worth of land as easily as x dollars’ worth of machines, and the units are just as homogeneous in one case as in the other. In fact, both kinds of agents frequently are bought as value units. The word “amount” in the contrast between an amount of land and an amount of capital begs the whole question, for in one case it means units measured by area and differing in yield, in the other it means the homogeneous value expression of differing units. It is impossible to escape these errors if the analysis insisted upon in the opening paper is overlooked.
Professor Carver has maintained25 that there are abundant reasons for distinguishing between the income from land and the income from produced goods, in that interest as a personal income is a necessity to insure waiting, and thus is a condition of efficient production. This is retaining the traditional conception of the distinction between the objective classes of goods, while repudiating the traditional reasoning, and while broadening the conception of rent to any surplus or unearned income. The idea of surplus is generally very vague, but under the application of any suggested surplus-test the concept of rent would extend to numberless incomes and fractions of incomes not derived from land, and would fail to include numberless incomes and fractions of incomes that are derived from land in any usable sense of that term. Replies that, to my mind, are conclusive on the principle here involved were given in the course of the discussion.26 It follows from this surplus conception that any portion of the income derived from produced goods that would have been saved if the rate of interest had been lower, is rent, not interest; and that any natural element of fertility in land that would have been used up except for the factor of waiting, would thereafter yield interest, not rent. Adopting for the moment the terminology of the critic, his challenge may be accepted; the proposition that “men must receive interest as a personal income to induce them [i.e., the marginal abstainers] to wait” and that “interest as a personal income is necessary to secure efficient production,” not only can be but must be paralleled by like propositions concerning rent. Men must receive land rent as a personal income to induce them to bring the marginal land into cultivation and to maintain undiminished the supply of productive qualities. Thus land rent is necessary to secure efficient production continuously from land. The margin in question is not a hair line, it is in practice a zone of wide extent. This fact is the basis of private property in land as broadly and surely as the other fact is the justification of interest. We are not concerned here with the ethical question, but in each of the two cases a social policy is based on the need of maintaining the marginal units of supply, a policy which always appears unjustified when attention is directed only to the surplus cases.27 It is in conflict with all experience to assume that the actual supply of land would be kept up to its efficiency if rent did not go to some personal agent who made himself responsible for the repairs, the restoration of fertility, and the waiting for the future involved in refraining from “Raubbau,” the immediate exploitation of the land. (In some cases, it is true, this agent may be a group of men acting collectively through government, as in the case of any form of public ownership.)
As Marshall says: “The greater part of the soil in old countries....has in it a large element of capital. Man can turn a barren into a very fertile soil.”28 To deny first that the supply of land either as extension or fertility has any marginal relation to sacrifice, or is within man's control, and then when this is shown to be an error, to assert that such land is not land, but capital, and that the income from it is not rent, but interest—this is the approved mode of showing the exceptional character of rent. Are the terms land and rent thus to be refined away from any relation to the real things about which the economist begins to reason, and of which the practical world thinks whenever those terms are used?29
Professor Taylor admits that my thesis is valid when confined to static conditions, but he adheres to “the relation-to-cost” concept in discussing dynamic conditions.30 In his very suggestive remarks he has not revealed his thought fully enough to make clear the ground of his reasoning, but it would appear to be essentially the one just examined. While Taylor and Carver differ in some points, they agree in others, both alike rejecting the static reasoning on which Hollander bases his conclusion.
Dr. MacFarlane also holds a relation-to-cost concept of rent, but most of his discussion is given to a negative criticism of my position. His own views, though known to many readers, were not developed in this symposium. Some points will be noted below.
The attacks on my positive proposals refer in part to their supposed implications and consequences, in part to the advisability of the terms suggested.
1. Professor Taylor objects31 that the first of the three stages in the analysis of value is not fundamental and precedent to the others, but is co-extensive with them. This criticism probably proceeds from a misunderstanding of the briefly expressed proposition. Not all goods, but only immediately enjoyable goods were said to present the first problem in the analysis of value. The second problem, that of the value of usufructs, and the third, that of the value of future uses, are, as my critic suggests, but developed phases of the general problem of value.
2. Professor Taylor believes that in criticizing Marshall's attempt to trace a continuity between rent and interest, I have denied the validity of reasoning by continuities.32 It is not to a true continuity concept that I object, but to a pseudo-continuity concept. As the thought passes along the series from rent as an income yielded by one kind of concrete goods, to interest as the income yielded by another kind, there is unconsciously introduced a new contrast. The value expression of capital and the percentage expression of interest are equally applicable to the rent end of the series, and it is an error to assume that they are applicable only at the other end. My suggestion is to apply consistently each distinction in turn.
3. Dr. MacFarlane declares33 that the outcome of my proposal is the obliteration of all distinctions between rent, interest, profit and wages. This conclusion, drawn from my statement that “interest may appear in connection with any gratification,” is due to the failure to apprehend how and how far the proposed conception differs from the one apparently taken in this discussion34 by the critic himself, that each kind of income corresponds to a particular kind of income bearer. The proposal is to look upon interest in all cases (as it is now in many cases) as being that particular phase of value connected with differences in the time of accrual of incomes. Recognizing that a day's work to-day is worth more than one next year, does not identify interest and wages. Wages payable at different points of time vary in value as do rents at different points of time, and the comparison of each series is expressed by the interest rate.
4. Dr. MacFarlane objects35 further that the proposed view of capital identifies the capitalized value of monopoly surplus with capital in general. True it does; there is no other logical way.36 It is not quite clear what monopoly means as the critic uses the term, but any source of income that is continuing and foreseeable can be capitalized and sold, and thus becomes homogeneous with the value of the continued control of other sources of income. When from any cause income ceases, the capitalization collapses, monopoly or no monopoly. The puzzle as to whether the $5,000 or the $12,000 are to be called interest, is merely a confusion of the problems of economic income and contract interest.
5. Dr. MacFarlane says37 that I have tried to identify land and capital by a mere arithmetic device that does not touch the substantial differences. I would reply that because an arithmetic device has been inconsistently applied in the traditional theory, illusive contrasts not existing objectively, have been created. I dissent from Professor Carver's opinion that it is merely a question of terminology in dispute,38 and I agree with Dr. MacFarlane that there is involved more than a question of definition.39 The arithmetic device is significant at least in a negative criticism of the supposed contrast between rent as a differential and interest as a homogeneous income; it serves to show the fallacy in the old view as to the special relation of rent to entrepreneur's cost of production; and it sets in a clear light the error in the traditional contrast between the value expression of “capital” and the concrete expression of land. This proof of the substantial unity and continuity of the body of income yielding wealth has been suggestively styled by Professor Taylor40 in a phrase drawn from chemistry, “allotropism.” One group of elements has been mistaken under differing conditions for two elements, (the condition in this case being the subjective attitude of the thinker). Take away the fallacious contrast, apply the arithmetic device consistently, and the objective classes of “natural agents” and “capital goods” are seen to be merged into one body of wealth, presenting three value aspects: gratifications, usufructs, expectations. But identifying the substance does not identify the allotropic states; coal is not diamond, though both are allotropic states of carbon; and no more is rent the same as interest. Like most analogies, however, this one is not perfect, and may become misleading. But this has brought us to another question deserving special answer.
6. It is taken for granted that my proposition is to treat rent and interest as identical. Several of the speakers have assumed that the idea of the paper was that of John B. Clark, and thereupon they have criticized his views, not mine. My indebtedness (shared in common with all contemporary students) to the inspiration of this ablest of theoretical economists, should not impose on him any responsibility for the theory of distribution here presented. The prepossessions of some of the speakers make it difficult for them to see the full import of a denial of the parallelism between the two incomes, rent and interest on the one hand, and the two objective classes of goods, land and capital on the other. They therefore attribute to me conclusions deduced from premises of their own supplying. This is seen in the assumption that a denial of the conventional contrasts between valuable natural agents and (conventional) capital is a denial of the difference between rent and interest. It is consistent with my views to speak, as Professor Daniels does, of the identification (or merging), of the classes of wealth composing “land and capital” (in the conventional sense); but this is not an identification, as others consider it to be, of rent and interest. Having made this point as clear as I could in the limited space allotted, I can merely re-assert that this lack of parallelism is of the very essence of the contention in the opening paper.
7. Finally, it is said41 that if the old concepts are to be rejected, it is better to devise new terms than to adapt old ones having misleading associations. To this view must be conceded a large measure of validity. Regarding the term rent there is less difficulty, as the broad meaning here suggested not only has strong historical support, but in many languages, including our own, is grounded so deeply in popular usage that no economic authority has been able to uproot it. There is needed only an elimination of inconsistent thoughts from the concept and the retention of one of the ideas that always has been present in it. Regarding interest the decision is more difficult. Only yesterday economists talked of “the theory of profits” when they meant what is now called “the theory of interest.” The term interest, until recently, was used almost if not quite exclusively, as meaning the income from a money loan. This is a contractual, not an economic income, and as such is not a genus coördinate with economic rent, rather it is species of the genus contractual rent. Is it not significant that even in the classical treatment interest as an accruing or realized income expressed as a percentage never appears except as the result of a contract?
The essence of the so-called problem of interest, according to the view in the opening paper is not fundamentally contractual interest, but capitalization. The problem logically following that of rent is not that of analyzing a coordinate income, for rent absorbs all the incomes accruing from material agents at any moment of time; but it is that of the value-calculation on future incomes. The title of the opening paper might perhaps better be: “The relations between rent and capitalization.” That, however, would have misled the reader approaching it with the older conceptions in mind. Either “the theory of discount” or “the theory of capitalization” would be a more appropriate term for this part of the problem than is the theory of interest, and possibly some still better term can be found. The final use of terms is a matter of social convention; but when the real nature of the problem is understood, and then the fitting terms are suggested, they will not long fail of acceptance, as the example of the rapid change in the usage of the word profits gives reason to hope.
Whatever other impression may be left by this discussion I trust it will be that I have contended for a merely verbal change. On the contrary I have outlined, whatever be its defects, a radically new conception of the whole theoretical analysis of distribution. Doubtless this session has been most profitably spent in considering the more negative phases of the subject; but the scant attention that has been given to the yet more important positive outcome of the study may leave an impression of negation and verbal criticism that is misleading.
I welcome the able, forcible and somewhat unexpected support that has been given to my thesis in this discussion by the advocates of a realistic theory.42 Opinion on this subject is unquestionably in process of change. Even the more conservative speakers in this session have made concessions that would have been startling a few years ago. The immediate result of such a friendly interchange of views as this has been, may be to strengthen each in his own opinion; but in the end the result must be to help us all towards the right solution of these difficult and important problems in the realm of abstract economic theory.
The argument in this paper, forced into excessive brevity at many points, should be interpreted in connection with other essays by the writer, published from time to time in the past three years. Arranged, as nearly as their special nature permits, in a logical series, they are as follows:
Review of Gustav Cassel, The Nature and Necessity of Interest, and Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk,Recent Literature on Interest
These two books, published almost simultaneously last year, testify to the attention which the theoretical problem of interest still commands. The first is a well-executed translation of the new material embodied in the second German edition (1900) of Böhm-Bawerk's Geschichte und Kritik der Capitalzinstheorien. The translators well say in their preface:
Whatever may be the final verdict of science regarding the agio theory, no one can doubt that the splendid example of criticism and analysis which is contained in Böhm-Bawerk's work has raised theoretical discussion to a higher level and has been a constant and powerful stimulus to investigation in this field.
The preface is largely taken up with the translators’ epitome of the criticism of John Rae, to whose ideas the author's attention had been called after the first edition of his work appeared. The
The book has, on the whole, a negative rather than a positive character. To borrow a phrase from recent politics, the author “stands pat” on what he had written fifteen years before. More clearly than before he realizes and frankly confesses that he is an eclectic. He admits (p. 137) that something may be said against eclecticism of every kind, but the objection seems to him least when “incoherent elements of different theories are combined into an external unity.” He repeats his familiar condemnation of the productivity theory, declaring (p. 121) that “the solution of the problem of interest can never be found in the process of thought peculiar to that theory.” But he here means complete solution, and again and again he repeats his belief that two elements coöperate in the explanation (p. xxxii), that psychological and technical points of view must be harmonized (p.8), that interest has several sources, including the roundabout process (pp. 45, 46, 143, 145 et passim). He contrasts (p. 142) his own partial productivity theory with “the genuine, outspoken productivity theories,” which leave out “a full half of the actual causes of the phenomenon of interest.” So far from seeking to evade the appearance of eclecticism, he takes pride (p. 146) in the two-fold nature of his explanation, and declares it to be “a recognized truth” that a correct solution must be an eclectic one. We must express an emphatic dissent from this lame and impotent conclusion which, however, completely verifies the opinion of the reviewer as expressed in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (vol. xvii, p. 177) that Böhm-Bawerk's theory, “so far as it rests on the productiveness of the roundabout process, is a productivity theory.” An eclectic conclusion disappoints the high purposes with which Böhm-Bawerk began his study of the subject, and the high hopes he inspired. His whole discussion goes astray for lack of a consistent conception of capital. He seems at times near to a broader and truer conception of the problem of time-discount, but fails at such points to develop his thought.
The author is entirely untouched by those currents of thought which, beginning with J.B. Clark and Irving Fisher, have developed an entirely new literature of the subject of the capital concept. For lack of such a point of view, most of the subtle controversy of the present volume must appear to many readers to be the echoes of ancient opinions. The argument does not move forward, but merely marks time. The familiar ideas, when reiterated, may still engage the attention of a small group of special students of abstract theory, but they have lost their power to stimulate and inspire.
Dr. Cassel attempts first to develop a new theory of interest and secondly to examine the causes why interest is and always will be necessary. He presents a theory of interest as the pay for “waiting,” and differs with Böhm-Bawerk, to whom he refers slightingly (p. 22), whose review of the history of the subject he criticizes as one-sided, and to whose roundabout process he presents essentially the same objections that had been pointed out a year before by the reviewer (in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. xvii, pp. 163–180). But Dr. Cassel meets some of the same difficulties that befell Böhm-Bawerk, for he also fails to get a consistent capital concept. He connects the payment for “waiting” with the definite factor capital (p.67), and then after some delay limits capital to “produced goods except such consumable goods as are already in the hands of the consumer” (p. 88; see also p. 133). He does not see that waiting may be present both in the case of consumable goods in the hands of the consumer and in the case of land (which, in the old-fashioned way, he usually thinks of as not being an object of waiting). He wavers somewhat when (p. 167) he declares that interest is paid not for “the use of a piece of concrete capital...but for ‘goods in general,’” for land must here also be included. But it is needless to adduce other examples to show that such a limitation of the capital concept makes impossible a complete theory of time-discount.
In the part dealing with the necessity of interest, the book is more original. It discusses at length and suggestively the changes that would be worked in the motives of men if the rate of interest fell from three per cent to two per cent or lower. The shifting of the margin of application of agents is described, and “the main argument of the book” (p. 157), which is to show “the necessity of interest,” is strikingly brought out. The argument is strong as directed against the notions of the over-production of capital and the fallacy of saving. By this, its most interesting and valuable feature, the book should be judged as a contribution to economic theory.
Interest Theories, Old and New
Abstract theory, always of fundamental importance, has, as truly as practical policy, its “topics of the day,” and just now discussion of the interest problem is especially active. Notable among recent articles are those by Professors H. R. Seager, Irving Fisher, and H. G. Brown.1 Mere individual differences of opinion concern us little; but certain impersonal equities which other students of economics have in the interest problem, are involved; for in recent discussion is fairly presented the issue between the old and the new conception of the interest problem.2 And yet the case for the newer view might seem to be on the point of being lost before the bar of economic opinion. It is a duty, therefore, to attempt a more adequate statement of the neglected truths.
The rival views may be characterized as the technological3 and the psychological interest theories. For more than a decade, the psychological theory has been gaining adherents in America. There has not been lacking adverse criticism in scattered book reviews and in occasional footnotes; but in the main, the opposition has been of a merely negative sort, in that most economists have failed to reckon with it and have adhered to the older theory.
PROFESSOR IRVING FISHER AS A PRODUCTIVITY THEORIST
Seager's paper, just cited, is the first systematic attempt that has been made to disprove any version of the newer theory (for
There are many who, consciously or unconsciously, ascribe the phenomena of interest to the productivity of capital in general....Yet a very slight examination will suffice to show the inadequacy of this explanation.5
To raise the rate of interest by raising the productivity of capital is, therefore, like trying to raise oneself by one's boot-straps.6
Absence of interest is quite compatible with the presence of physical-productivity, and...therefore whatever element is responsible for the existence of interest in the actual world, that element cannot be physical-productivity.7
The conclusion, therefore, from our study of the various forms of the productivity theory is that physical-productivity, of itself, has no such direct relation to the rate of interest as is usually ascribed to it; and in the theories which we have examined, the rate of interest is always surreptitiously introduced.8
“Interest is due to the productivity of capital”...This proposition looks attractive, but it is superficial...the superior productiveness of roundabout processes of production...has no power whatever to create interest.9
Now, however, instead of meeting the question directly, and re-affirming his disbelief in the productivity theory, he seems to surrender his position as the easiest way of ridding himself of criticism. He says that he pleads “not guilty to the charge of neglecting the ‘productivity’ or ‘technique’ element.” He speaks of “the true way in which the ‘technique of production’ enters into the determination of the rate of interest;”10 he says, “‘the productivity’ or ‘technique’ element, so far from being lacking in my theory, is one of its cardinal features;”11 and, again, “Productivity has not been neglected in my treatment of interest.”
Now it is true that these somewhat general expressions alone merely raise the reader's doubts. For to say that he does not neglect “productivity” or that it is not lacking in his theory does not positively commit Fisher to belief in a productivity explanation of interest as distinct from an essentially psychological explanation. But other expressions deepen the reader's doubts, and suggest strongly that Fisher objects only to certain formulations of a productivity theory, not to productivity theories on principle.
He admits12 that in his book he has criticized “the ordinary13 productivity theories,” but says that he then “explained to the reader that later in the book I would rebuild the ‘technical’ feature which, in the theories of others, I sought to destroy.” Again14 he speaks of his strictures on “the ordinary productivity theories,” implying that some productivity theory or theories may be tenable. Again he reproaches Professor Seager with being “open to the charge of regarding all productivity theories as alike sound in principle” (implying that some are sound?). And he expresses the belief that “every one who has read Böhm-Bawerk should believe that the ordinary, or as Böhm-Bawerk calls them, the ‘naive’ productivity theories are snares and delusions.”15
These passages taken by themselves give the impression that the author is at heart as good a productivity theorist as any one; indeed, he collates them himself, seemingly, for the purpose of producing just this impression. This clearly is out of accord with the spirit and letter of much else that Fisher has said in denying productivity as a causal explanation of interest. The most lenient interpretation is that Fisher is here speaking in the spirit of an earlier statement:16
If after all has been said and understood, any one still prefers to call such a loan “productive,” no objection is offered, provided always that it is made wholly clear what is meant by the term “productive.”
Here it seems clear that Fisher did not think the term productive, which he carefully enclosed in quotation marks each time, was a fitting adjective for such loans, made by borrowers for the purpose of gaining a profit. In his reply to Seager, however, Fisher's mood is all for so emphasizing any earlier statement of the tolerant sort as to make it appear that he does not deny the productivity theory of interest. He cites several passages in his earlier writings in which he has used such expressions as “the elements of truth contained in the claims of the productivity theories.”17 He says: “It was through mathematics that I saw the nature and importance of productivity in relation to interest,” giving the impression that he at one time disbelieved in productivity as a causal explanation but had come to see his mistake. He says that his book “was written expressly for that purpose” (rendering of the technique element).18 Despite his ability to adduce these evidences of his innocence of the charge of disbelief in the productivity interest theory, Fisher is penitent for not having made his position clearer. He declares that he has himself “to blame” “for the mistakes he (Seager) has made.” He concludes this recantation:19
I ought, I doubt not, to have put forward the productivity element more prominently and with less avoidance of the term “productivity.” I remember consciously avoiding this term so far as possible lest the reader should associate my theory too much with the many false theories of productivity.20
The most clear-cut evidence that he cites from his writings to prove that he never intended to deny the validity of the productivity theory per se is this:21 “Again I specifically stated (The Rate of Interest, p. 186): ‘But while the slowness of Nature is a sufficient cause for interest, her productivity is an additional cause.’” A phrase which might have been deemed an oversight when taken in connection with other earlier statements, is here deliberately reaffirmed, and casts doubt upon the meaning of much of Fisher's previous writings. Just what is his position on the productivity theory? His recent apology, appearing at the same time that his colleague, Dr. H. G. Brown, publishes an elaborate defense of an eclectic productivity theory, is most disappointing to the group of true psychological interest theorists in America who a few years ago welcomed Professor Fisher as an accession to their ranks, and who still cherish the hope that, after he has fed for a time on the husks of the productivity theory, they may greet him again as a returning prodigal.
ORIGIN OF THE CAPITALIZATION THEORY
As a basis for further discussion, a brief review must be given of the origin and main features of “the capitalization theory” of interest as I had developed it several years before the publication of Professor Fisher's theory of interest in 1907. My attention was drawn to the subject repeatedly between the years 1895 and 1900 while I was studying the theory of distribution; and in an article on the capital concept, in 1900, I said:
I would not exaggerate the significance of the change here proposed in the capital concept, yet it would be folly to ignore the consequences its acceptance would involve for economic theory...The current theories of land value, of rent, of interest, to a greater or less extent rest on the unsound ideas which have been criticized throughout this paper. On another occasion the writer will attempt to state the outlines of an economic system of thought in harmony with the capital concept here presented.22
Again, in a paper presented the same year at a meeting of the American Economic Association, it was said among other statements pointing in the same direction:
With this change [of the capital concept] must go a change in the whole conception of interest, which likewise is connected in the still current treatment with a factor that has been produced by labor. The multitudinous and naive inconsistencies of the older treatment became apparent when viewed in the light of the later value theory.
The doctrines of rent and interest as currently taught are hopelessly entangled in these old and illogical distinctions. The two forms of return for material goods must be considered as differing in modes of calculation, not as to kinds of agents and as kinds of return. The object of this paper may now be restated...to show the necessity of rewriting the theory of distribution along radically new lines...and the acceptance of doctrines, the readjustment of which is shown to be inevitable.23
More than a year later, in reviewing some essays by Böhm-Bawerk,24 I said:
Great as have been the services of our author in stimulating to clearer and deeper thinking in economic theory, his presentation of a Capitalstheorie evidently is not destined to be a finality. Some development it is sure to undergo, and is undergoing. And that development lies along the lines of a value concept as opposed to a cost-of-production concept.
Again in the same year, at the conclusion of a critical article on Böhm-Bawerk's theory:25
Let us venture an opinion as to the nature of the difficulty and the direction that must be taken to reach a correct solution....Let us suggest the view that rent and interest are very dissimilar aspects of the value of goods. Rent26 has to do with “production” of scarce and desirable uses of things. To the interest theorist this is in the nature, one might almost say, of an ultimate fact. The interest theory begins with the valuation of these different rents or incomes, distributed through different periods of time. The ‘productiveness’ of a material agent is merely its quality of giving a scarce and desirable service to men. To explain this service of goods is the essence of the theory of rent. Given this and a prospective series of future services, however, the problem of interest arises, which is essentially that of explaining the valuation set on the future uses contained in goods. Interest thus expressing the exchange ratio of present and future services or uses is not and cannot be confined to any class of goods; it exists wherever there is a future service. It is not dependent on the roundaboutness of the process; for it exists where there is no process whatever, if there be merely a postponement of the use for the briefest period. A good interest theory must develop the fertile suggestion of Böhm-Bawerk that the interest problem is not one of product, but of the exchange of product,—a suggestion he has not himself heeded. It must give a simple and unified explanation of time value, wherever it is manifest. It must set in their true relation the theory of rent as the income from the use of goods in any given period, and interest as the agio or discount on goods of whatever sort, when compared throughout successive periods.
A year later, in 1903, I outlined the same conception of a thoroughgoing psychological analysis, and for the first time gave the name of “a theory of capitalization” to the proposed treatment of what usually is called “economic interest.”27
Another solution may be found by combining into a logical system the three typical modes in which goods appeal to wants. First, goods appeal directly as want-gratifiers immediately available. Here is required a theory of wants and enjoyable goods, and the technical analysis of marginal utility. The mental process here examined is chronologically the first stage of evaluation, in the history both of the individual and of the race. Secondly, goods appear as more or less durable, and may be made comparable by being considered, through repairs, to be lasting use-bearers, yielding in a given short period a group of uses. Here is the place for the theory of rents. This is chronologically the second stage of evaluation, when durable goods are thought of and expressed in terms of their usufructs. Thirdly, whenever two non-synchronous gratifications, rents or series of rents, are exchanged, they must be discounted to their present worth to be made comparable. Here is required a theory of capitalization, that is, of economic interest. This is historically as well as logically the latest stage of evaluation, characteristic of a developed money economy and of a “capitalistic” era. These three phases must be observed in every complete analysis of value.
In an elementary textbook published in 1904 (The Principles of Economics) this conception of the interest theory was embodied, not as a thing apart from, but as an integral part of, a general theory of value. This mode of treatment, though new,28 was not labeled with a distinctive name, and, being presented in an elementary text, has doubtless remained unread by many economists, and its true import unrecognized by some who have read it.
As is shown in the passages cited above, my conception long has been that in the analysis of the value problem the value of enjoyable goods must be first considered; that this should be followed by the valuation connected with the physical productivity of agents; and that only after full consideration of income expressed in psychic terms, in physical terms, and in monetary terms, is it in order to take up the theory of time value, which is then to be developed as the basis of capitalization of incomes and of a resulting rate of contract interest.
POSITIVE STATEMENT OF THE CAPITALIZATION THEORY
Accordingly, in my text, the first forty pages are devoted to psychic income and to the process of valuation which results in a price of things considered as directly enjoyable objects of choice. In the next division, comprising nearly sixty pages, is taken up the physical productivity of wealth, the uses of goods, and the valuation of those uses. Contract rent is here based upon the valuation, to individuals, of the productive uses of durable agents, just as contract-price is based upon the valuation of enjoyable goods. A hundred pages were thus given to explaining as well as I was able to do it in a first sketch of the theory of distribution for elementary students, what income is, and how income arises, so that it may be the object of choice and of exchange. In the next division (Capitalization and Time-value) I discussed, in seventy pages, the various problems of value that arise from a comparison of goods in point of time. I treated capitalization as the problem of valuation of durable agents, and developed a theory of the rate of interest on contract loans based on this conception of capitalization.
For the reader unacquainted with the capitalization theory, its essential features may be here outlined. At the outset let us seek to avoid the confusion caused by the use of the word interest in two senses, first, of a payment for contract loans made in terms of money, and, secondly, of the difference in value between like goods available at different times. Economists have of late generally recognized these two meanings, and have sought to distinguish them by the terms contract and economic interest.29 Though such a terminology is an improvement upon the old, it leaves an ambiguity that continually reappears in the discussion. I therefore used the word interest solely in its original and still almost universal commercial sense of contract-interest, and I used the term time-value to designate the other problem of “economic” or “implicit” interest.30
Seeing the two problems as in large measure distinguishable, and seeking for the logical starting point in the study, I asked: Which of these two questions was prior in history and which is primary in logic? In both cases the answer was time-value. The canon of priority in economic reasoning applied here: whichever of two interrelated problems or mutually acting forces can be thought of as existing without the other, must be primary in the explanation. A rate of interest on money loans would be unthinkable if there were no differences relative to time in the estimates men placed on some goods available at different points of time. On the other hand, the use of money and the practice of borrowing and lending in terms of money are of comparatively recent origin; and the estimate of time-value today is thinkable, and is actually made, apart from the use of money or from any act of borrowing or exchange between persons. It must always have been found, as it now is in countless cases, in an impersonal relation between man and objects. Further, I applied the same test to determine the priority of capitalization and the rate of interest on loans (taking capitalization to mean simply putting a valuation, a present worth, upon a more or less durable group or source of incomes). The usual view has been that capitalization is subsequent to a rate of interest. But capitalization, as the process of putting a present worth upon any durable source of wealth and thus discounting its future uses by the act of exchanging it for other things, must have occurred many times before a rate of contract interest existed. This process surely occurs now in many cases without previous reference to such a rate. If, however, the less crude view be taken, that the interest problem studied is economic interest (time-discount) rather than contract interest, it is clear that this also is an aspect of the capitalization rather than antecedent to it. This rate of discount (“implicit” or “economic interest”) is in itself nothing but an arithmetic reflection, in no sense causal, of the preference implied in the valuation of goods. Robinson Crusoe, in his individual economy, must, by his choice of goods which embody uses maturing at different periods, wrap up a scale of time-values which only later, if ever, except in a very vague form, appear as an arithmetic rate. The primitive economy in its choice of enjoyable goods of different epochs of maturity, in its wars for the possession of hunting grounds and pastures, in its slow accumulation of a store of valuable durable tools, weapons, houses, boats, ornaments, flocks and herds, first appropriated from nature, and then carefully guarded and added to by patient effort—in all this and in much else the primitive economy, even though it were quite patriarchal and communistic, without money, without formal trade, without definite arithmetic calculations, was nevertheless capitalizing, and therefore embodying in its economic environment a rate of premium and discount as between present and future.
This, then, is the essence of the capitalization theory of interest as nearly as we can put it in a proposition: The rate of interest (contractual) is the reflection, in a market price on money loans, of a rate of capitalization involved in the prices of the goods in the community. The price of durable agents is a capitalization which involves a discount of their future uses, and this is logically prior to the rate of contract interest. The logical order of explanation is from numberless separate acts of choice of goods with reference to time, to the value (and prices) of durable goods embodying future incomes, and finally to the market rate of interest.31 This interest theory was new in its order of development from elementary choice; in the priority it assigned to capitalization above contract interest; in its unified psychological explanation of all the phenomena of the surplus that emerges when undervalued expected incomes approach maturity, the surplus all being derived from the value of enjoyable (direct) goods, not by two separate theories, for consumption and production goods respectively; in the integration of the interest theory with the whole theory of distribution; and in a number of details necessarily related to these features.
A just opinion of the newer theory is possible only to those who are willing to re-think the fundamental economic concepts. The change in the interest theory is only a part of the general reformulation of distributive theory which has been under way for a third of a century. It is to be understood only in that light.
SOME DIFFICULTIES IN FISHER'S IMPATIENCE THEORY
From the standpoint of the capitalization theory, the various questions raised in the discussion between Seager and Fisher and in Professor Brown's paper, appear from a new angle. It seems to be a different standpoint from that of Fisher, although at times he may appear to hold it. It is true that in his work The Rate of Interest (1907), in which his theory was first presented, he introduced his “first approximation” with a chapter on time-preference, which he declares to be “the central fact in the theory of interest,” giving in a footnote without comment at this point32 a page reference to my text. He says that “the income concept plays the central role.”33 But he treats capitalization as subsequent to a rate of interest, saying:34
When any other goods than enjoyment incomes are considered their values already imply a rate of interest. When we say that interest is the premium on the value of a present house over that of a future house we are apt to forget that the value of each is itself based on a rate of interest. We have seen that the price of a house is a discounted value of its future income. In the process of discounting there lurks a rate of interest. The value of houses will rise or fall as the rate of interest falls or rises. Hence, when we compare the values of present and future houses, both terms of the comparison involve the rate of interest. If, therefore, we undertake to make the rate of interest depend on the relative preference for present over future houses, we are making it to depend on two elements in each of which it already enters.
And again he says:35 “The value of the capital is found by taking the income which it yields and capitalizing it by means of the rate of interest.” Still later he writes:36 “Capital value is merely the present or discounted value of income. But whenever we discount income we have to assume a rate of interest.”
From the moment Fisher begins his first approximation37 he takes his standpoint in the money market and supposes an existing rate of interest to which rates of time-preference of individuals are later brought into conformity. His treatment throughout is of the actuarial, mathematical type, concerned with the explaining and equalizing of incomes which are assumed to be present. I feel as strongly as does Professor Seager the neglect, in this treatment, of the element of productivity in accounting for the existence of the incomes.38 From my point of view the difficulty appears to inhere in Fisher's general conception of the problem.39 I differ from the productivity theorist, however, in looking upon the interest problem as that of explaining not the existence nor yet the magnitude of those incomes, but the rate of their valuation to the valuation of the capital sum (principal) to which the contract rate (percentage) refers.
I share with Seager the opinion that there is no “sovereign virtue in mathematical modes of thought” which safeguards the mathematical economist from error. Indeed, there seem to be characteristic mathematical illusions.
I share Seager's doubt of the aptness of the proposition that impatience is “a fundamental attribute of human nature” or is “the essence of interest,” though my doubts are for a different reason.40 It is interesting to notice that Fisher himself did not seem to hold this view when he wrote The Rate of Interest, in 1907. He said:41
It shows also that the preference for present over future goods of like kind and number is not, as some writers seem to assume, a necessary attribute of human nature, but that it depends always on the relative provisioning of the present and future.
In an article in 1911,42 he for the first time used the term impatience in this connection, which he confesses is but a “catchword” in place of time-preference. With this change of name has gone a change in the conception of the thing designated.
In my own book, The Rate of Interest, for instance, this term was unused because unthought of, and the clumsier and less explanatory term “time-preference” was employed instead. The proposal to employ the term “impatience” is here made for the first time....Impatience is a fundamental attribute of human nature.
In 1912,43 he restates the same view: “It [impatience] is a fundamental attribute of human nature....Interest is, as it were, human impatience crystallized into a market rate.”
My objection to this change of terms is that if the new word is more “catchy” it is less fitting than the word it displaces. Impatience is freighted with suggestions of “eagerness for change, restlessness, chafing of spirit, fretfulness, passion” (Webster). Time-valuation or time-preference better expresses the complex of motives which at one time impels men to get goods earlier, and again leads them to postpone use by storing goods and by working for the future in many ways. A prevailing rate of interest is the resultant of all kinds and degrees of time-preference in a community, preference for goods in the future in some cases as well as preference for goods in the present, and it seems a great straining of words to attribute the resulting rate of interest to impatience alone. Patience, self-denial, the quality expressed in the old term abstinence, have a no less important part in the explanation.
Let us pass with brief mention the question which takes up a goodly space in Seager's criticism and Fisher's reply—whether individuals are able to, and actually do, bring their “rate of impatience” (time-preference) into exact accord with that implied in the market rate of interest. Seager did well to question the statement, and Fisher's concessions on this point do not leave very much in dispute. The individual brings his rate of time-preference into accord with the market rate, so long as that adjustment yields him an advantage, and so far as he has something to exchange, can furnish security, or is not hindered by friction in other ways. Within the larger national economy, there are many imperfectly connected, provincial, class and family groups living in diverse economic conditions, and having diverse capitalization rates. In the central credit-market, as in the simplest typical price problem of the sale of commodities, we may always conceive of some excluded would-be buyers, and likewise sellers, who remain outside the limits of actual trading because valuing their purchasing power and the sale-goods in a ratio which gives no margin of advantage at the market price.
PHYSICAL-AND VALUE-PRODUCTIVITY DISTINGUISHED
The more serious theoretical issue involved here is the ground of Seager's objection, which Fisher does not touch in his reply. It is that the technical productivity of agents is the cause of the impatience. Seager says:44
So far as I can see, with the technical superiority of present over future goods, or the productivity of capital, absent, the question as to whether interest would continue or not is an entirely open one...Is it [time-preference] not rather a result of the present industrial organization of society arising chiefly from the fact that capital plays such a tremendously important role in production and that, under the system of private property in the instruments of production and free competition, capitalists can secure a return corresponding, at least roughly, to the part of the value-product that is economically imputable to the assistance which their capital renders? That is the view of the productivity theorists.
Whereupon Seager enters into a defense of the productivity theory, via a direct denial of Böhm-Bawerk's criticism of it as adopted by Fisher.45
Seager's argument at this point seems, indeed, to imply, as Fisher says,46 that Seager regards “all productivity theories as alike sound in principle.” Seager's opinion has, however, an element of progressiveness in it, for he says that nothing has shaken his “confidence in the essential soundness of the productivity-theory explanation of interest, when presented not as the complete explanation but as the necessary supplement to the discount theory.”47 He suggests in his explanation (also eclectic) of the way in which expenses of production and prices are related, that it is “nearer the truth to say that prices...determine the expense of production than the reverse.” Yet he concludes,48 “the chain of causation is not straight, but it turns upon itself in a circle.” He seems about to avow the same doctrine of coördinate rank and mutual influence as between technical productivity and time-preference, but he turns to the view that the part of productivity is in a fuller sense causal and primary, and that time-discount is the resultant of this.49 He declares that it is borrowers’ “demand for capital growing out of” the productivity which is “the positive, active influence determining interest.”
The capitalization theorist is compelled regretfully to reject the compromise involved in this enlightened eclecticism. For this is the way Seager begins his indication of what his theory “does and what it does not involve:”50
It starts out with the proposition that entrepreneurs desirous of making profits by supplying goods at current prices compete against one another for control of the factors necessary to production. This competition tends to keep their own profits down to a large or small “wages-of-management” and to force them to pass along as the remuneration of the factors which they hire, subject to this deduction and to a deduction for the replacement fund, the total price which they receive for the things which they sell. It is, therefore, contended that it is the part these factors play in production as compared and measured by the entrepreneurs that determines the shares of this total price that are assigned to them. The part that capital plays presents two aspects: that of capital goods available at a given instant of time, and that of the purchasing power tied-up in these capital goods during the period that they are performing their productive function. In relation to the first aspect, entrepreneurs appear as buyers. Normally, under conditions of free competition, the prices which they must pay for capital goods conform to their expenses of production. In relation to the second aspect, entrepreneurs appear as users of capital. How much interest they can afford to pay for such use, entrepreneurs estimate through comparing the productive services of capital goods at current prices with the productive services of workers, who at some points are interchangeable with capital goods, at current rates of wages. Through these comparisons the general rate of interest, so far as it depends upon the demand for capital for use in production, is determined.
Space does not permit of detailed comment to show that almost every sentence of this argument clashes with the physical productivity theory.
The productivity of which use is made when the explanation is really begun is not technical or physical productivity at all, but is the capacity which goods bought with judgment at current prices have in the hands of enterprisers, of yielding a net surplus, sufficient not only to remunerate them, but to pay contract interest to lenders. The amount of interest which “enterprisers estimate” they can afford to pay (i.e., the maximum amount) is the difference between the discounted, or present, worth of products imputable to these agents and their worth at the time they are expected to mature. The prices of the agents, which are the costs, involve (not presuppose) a rate of discount. As was said in my text:51
When the agent is bought outright, the very concluding of the bargain fixes a relation between the expected value of the income and the value of the capital invested. In other words, the exchange of durable agents virtually wraps up in them a net income which it is expected will unfold year by year when rents mature and are secured.
Undoubtedly, at this point is the crucial test of the competing theories. Is it productivity of agents that makes business men willing to borrow and pay interest? Could they afford to pay interest varying with the time element, if the value of the productivity, however large or small, were not discounted in the price of the agents they borrow (or buy with borrowed money)? I think not. Seager says:52
It is their [the business men's] demand for the savings of others for use in business enterprises that causes the balance always to be on the side of a positive rate of interest.
But this demand cannot reasonably begin unless there is already a balance on the side of a discount of values of the future uses of agents. Viewed from the standpoint of the capitalization theory, the causal order is the reverse of that of the productivity theory. Of course, there must be future expected uses (incomes), that is, productivity, as there must be men, if there is to be a valuation process, and as there must be some social organization if there are to be markets and prices. But if the future value of the products were not discounted, there could be no rate of interest. It varies with the magnitude of the time-discount at which borrowers, on the whole, are able to buy the title to the future products; and time-discount varies with changes in the whole complex economic situation, of which technical productivity is but one element, others being forethought, provision for needs in accordance with a prevailing standard (itself a complex thing), social and moral ideals, political conditions, etc., etc. It is the opportunity which the possession of ready money gives to the enterpriser to buy goods at a price involving a discount proportional to the futurity of the expected returns, that makes him willing to contract to pay interest. When these expected returns (the products) do appear in the course of time, their value-magnitude is, or should be, greater than was their investment magnitude, and it is out of this value-surplus, directly conditioned on an antecedent discount of the value-productivity, that contract interest is paid.
Before leaving this phase of our subject, let us look at it from one more angle, in the hope that some reader may find this a more helpful point of view. My contention throughout has been that the productivity theory in any of the versions known to me, and, specifically, in the entrepreneur version, defended by Seager, involves a confusion between physical-productivity and value-productivity; that in the course of the reasoning there is a shift from the one idea to the other. Seager admits that this confusion “has sometimes occurred,”53 but he believes that there is a “necessary or logical connection between physical-productivity as a general phenomenon of capitalistic production and value-productivity.” To bridge this logical gap seems to him, however, to be so simple a task that express proof of it may be assumed “to be superfluous,” for he thinks it is merely “an obvious deduction from the accepted principles in regard to the determination of exchange values and prices.” His proposition, therefore, is substantially this:54 The capital (agents) by virtue of its technical productivity here and now, produces more goods, and these goods have (when commodities generally are considered, and not some exceptional commodity) a greater value than the goods which would have been obtained without the capital. Hence, Seager concludes:
Admitting the physical-productivity of capital...the value-productivity...or more accurately an increase in the total value-product as a consequence of the assistance which capital renders to production seems to me to follow as a logically necessary consequence.
Here, where Seager would expect dissent, I readily agree; but hasten to add that this value-productivity is not at all that of which the productivity theorist speaks in his interest theory. Here we are saying merely: If agents used at this moment produce more, the products (speaking of the general and usual result) have more value here and now than the products that could have been obtained without the help of the productive agents. But the value-productivity which furnishes the motive to the enterpriser to borrow and gives him the power, regularly, to pay contract interest, is due, not to the fact that these products will have value when they come into existence, but to the fact that their expected value is discounted in the price of the agents bought at an earlier point of time. The two relations are in different planes. It is a problem of two dimensions which may be represented as follows:
The modern productivity theorist assumes as quite obvious the value-productivity B, as derived synchronously from the physical productivity A, but he ignores the problem of the discount relation in time between B and C. The pseudo-value-productivity assumed in the productivity theory of interest is all, however, involved in the unexplained discount relation between B and C, not in the identity relation between A and B. This is the petitio principii of the theory.
The value-surplus referred to is that part, imputable to, and varying with, the time element, and not that due to the peculiar commercial skill, or to the luck, of the enterpriser, in finding unusually low valued agents in one place, or unusually high valued products in another. If one did not bear in mind the complex character of the gross income “profits,” one might be tempted to exclaim: If the enterpriser must pay as interest the whole amount involved in time-discount, he never would have a motive to borrow. It is just here that appears so plainly the middleman's character of the productive-borrower. The rate of interest is a market price at which (security, etc., equalized) the individual borrows; but those with superior knowledge and superior foresight are able to buy in one economic group and to sell their products in another, to buy “underestimated” goods and to find a favorable market for highly esteemed products. They are merchants, buying when they can in a cheaper and selling in a dearer capitalization market,55 acting as the equalizers of rates and prices. It is the mercantile function-everywhere to do this. So we must dissent again when Seager says:56
And it is this demand for capital growing out of the important role capital plays as a factor in production, that is the positive, active influence determining interest, in the same sense that utility may be said to be the positive, active influence determining value.
Rather, this demand for capital determines interest in the same sense that the merchant's demand determines the wholesale price of merchandise, he merely judging and transmitting to the wholesaler and manufacturer the ultimate consumer's demand for various goods. In this case, the middleman's demand for capital (that is, for loans) is a reflection of the time-valuation of consumers as embodied in the prices prevailing in the markets for goods.
Professor Seager seems so near at times to abandoning the cost-of-production theory of prices with which the productivity theory of interest is related, and has contributed such valuable and needed criticism to the present discussion, that it is to be hoped that he may yet bring his powerful aid to the capitalization camp.
THE CAPITAL CONCEPT IN THE INTEREST THEORY
The difficulty of seeing the capitalization problem in a broad way, as something touching all sources and groups of income, is, however, insurmountable so long as one adheres to the old concept of capital. Seager uses capitals57 “in the sense of the produced means of further production,” and distinguishes land and capital as two groups of concrete objects, one of which owes its value to nature, and the other to labor. It is, of course, futile to attempt here a restatement of the reasons, negative and positive, against this view. They have been pretty fully stated elsewhere. Seager seems still to conceive of the interest problem as connected only with produced means of production, as did the older English economists, and as all productivity theorists incline to do. This inclination is found along with a treatment limited mainly, if not entirely, to contract interest.
But how can the “economic interest” aspect of the problem be limited to the income yielded by tools and machines? Why is not this problem presented in the case of incomes from land (or from an orchard, to which example Seager objects as not being typical of all forms of capital)? How account for the capitalization of this land and of this orchard? By applying a rate of interest derived from the money market as Fisher would seem to do, or a rate taken from the market for the loan of purely “produced” capital goods (whatever that may mean)? Cannot unproduced agents be capitalized unless the rate of discount is first discovered by making produced goods? Is not a capitalization rate conceivable in a community where land is the only form of wealth that is bought and sold? If so, then the thought is not avoidable that a rate of interest on contract loans to purchase land may prevail, reflecting this implied rate of capitalization—the chance for profit operating as a motive for the loan just as it does in manufacturing and commerce. Is interest not connected with a loan of money to buy “natural” agents as fully as with that to buy “artificial” agents? An answer to these questions inevitably carries one into the atmosphere of the capitalization theory, where the arbitrary limitation of the interest problem to loans made to buy “produced” agents becomes unthinkable.
But there is still the old question, how account for the tendency of profits (in the old broad sense of the term, including interest) toward equality; how explain the fact that on the average, though with many exceptions and fluctuations, the rates of profit to be had by productive borrowers in the various industries do not get so very far apart? There is the old explanation of cost-of-production of capital, upon which the latest productivity theorists still rely, and there is the capitalization theory. Both of these concede a place to the enterpriser. In the older view, the place is worthy to be called causal, in that, when any agent yields an abnormal return, he produces more agents, by incurring “costs” (which are either assumed to be fixed or are left quite unexplained), putting the price of more labor and materials into them and thus bringing their price into conformity with other agents of the same cost. The citadel where the productivity theorist feels his position to be impregnable is just here, in the thought that the amount and the value of “capital” (produced agents) is “brought into conformity with the expense of producing them,” thus regulating the interest rate. Seager is on familiar ground when he says:
Since there is nothing in the assumption that the productivity of all instruments is doubled that involves any serious change in the expense of producing the instruments.58
We must dissent. The doubling of the productivity of all agents alike would have very diverse effects upon the prices of the various enjoyable goods, and these prices would be reflected in the valuation process to the prices of the different natural sources and of all other agents, thus altering greatly the whole scale of costs in “producing” more agents.
But is this not a recognition that technical productivity has some influence upon the comparison of present and future gratifications, and hence upon the rate of interest? Surely, some influence it has, but the causal order of explanation is very different from that of the productivity theory. Technical productivity is one of the facts, physical, moral, intellectual, which go to make up the whole economic situation in which time-preference is exercised. That this, however, is not going over to the productivity theory of interest is shown by the fact that it points to an opposite conclusion as regards the resulting rate. The greater provision for present desires thus made possible leads us to expect a reduction of the preference for present goods and a lowering of their valuation in terms of future goods. This (other things being equal) would be reflected in a lower rate of time discount and a lower, not a higher, rate of interest, as the productivity theorist believes.59
May we not then conclude that the cost-of-production-of-capital explanation of interest is a partial glimpse of an intermediate and subordinate process of the adjustment of prices, in part a mistaking of effect for cause? It assumes a dual theory of investment prices; some prices are explained as due to demand and others as due to cost. The prices of the factors (materials, tools, labor) are taken as a basis from which to calculate the rate of interest, a sort of turtle's-back (as in the ancient theory of the universe) on which the giant, Entrepreneur, stands while carrying on his back the burden of interest.
The capitalization theory views the causal order very differently. First, time-valuation being embodied in durable agents with incomes extending over a period of time, becomes the capitalization of agents containing future uses, this involving a rate of time-discount. This, in a market with exchange, becomes price, which is cost to the enterpriser seeking a profit by buying these factors, combining them more or less with his own services, and selling them. This process is constantly levelling down inequalities in capitalization as between different commodities and markets. All men together are helping to evaluate all of the economic goods in the community. Within this larger circle of explanation, the part of the enterpriser is secondary and intermediate. He does not represent any additional “technical productivity” cause, coming in alongside of the psychological explanation of interest. The chance of income for himself exists before he makes a move, partly because the future incomes have already been discounted (the pure capital-income aspect), and partly because all agents are not discounted at any moment at exactly the same, or exactly the right, rate (the commercial profit aspect). It is because of the chance of private profit already inherent in the situation that the producer is led to act in his intermediary capacity.
THE SAME DIFFICULTIES AGAIN
The article by Professor H. G. Brown,60 a former pupil and present colleague of Fisher, appeared almost simultaneously with Fisher's concessions to the productivity theory. Professor Brown, agreeing almost completely with Seager, formulates an eclectic theory.
The position taken by the present writer is, that productivity and impatience are coördinate determinants, i.e., that productivity is as direct a determinant of interest as is impatience, and that productivity may be, in a modern community, the more important determinant.61
At every point where Professor Fisher is at his best, and rejects productivity “as a direct acting cause,” Professor Brown disagrees with him, and accepts productivity. Yet the article is marked by a number of just observations and seems at one point to touch upon the truth of the capitalization theory:62
We may say that a person's valuation of capital, along with the valuations of other persons in like situation, is less the direct result of the previously existing market rate of interest, than it is, by affecting his and their attitude towards the market, a determinant of the rate of interest.
But the argument on the whole is on the plane of that conception of productivity criticized above. Every feature of the old argument is reproduced. The explanation is hardly begun until the productivity is assumed to be a five per cent, a ten per cent, or a twenty per cent productivity. Per cent of what? Of the capital valuation, or the prices at which the borrower can buy the agents. Productivity in what way? In that the present prices, being the discounted value of the incomes that are expected, emerge at their maturing value as time elapses. The discount-rate involved in the capitalization is the “rate of productivity” which appears again and again in the argument. The borrower pays contract interest of five per cent only when he thinks he sees the opportunity to get this increment and something more for his trouble. Simple and true as an explanation of why men borrow at a rate of contract interest related to the prevailing rate of time-discount, but no proof whatever that the rate of interest is due to technical productivity.
Here, as always, the productivity theorist looks at the proximate influence, not at that one step removed; examines the middleman's motive, and ignores the ultimate consumer. The productive borrower is but the intermediary, transmitting to the market of consumers through the agency of prices, the effects of time-preference. Forgetting the motives and influences of the really determining group of minds, Professor Brown looks only at the “productive” borrower and says: “In what possible sense can it be said that he borrows only because he is impatient?”63 “All question of impatience aside”;64 “For even those [productive borrowers] who are not by nature impatient” etc.65 Professor Brown shows wells66 the inaptness of the word “impatience,” but his argument is futile as a refutation of a true psychological theory, for he is quite overlooking the substance, while he chases the shadow, of time-preference.
This motive to borrow exists as well when the agent to be bought with borrowed money is land, as when it is another agent. But just here67 Professor Brown withdraws to the citadel, the cost-of-production of capital, as that which tends “to fix the rate of interest and of discount.” He reaffirms the
importance of the distinction which Professor Seager has recently emphasized, between land and made capital, between original natural resources and “the produced means to further production.” Land is already present. For the most part, there is no balancing of choice as to whether or not we shall produce it.
What is the force of “already present”? Does “for the most part there is no balancing of choice” etc., mean that the way we use land has not affected its quantity in the past, and does not affect it for the future, either as acres or as productive power? In this day of the conservation and reclamation movements, are we to forget the part of repairs and depreciation, and assume the immutability of acres, arable and other kinds? Is there not involved in any standard of husbandry where soil-fertility is maintained, an adjustment of the cost-of-production and of the capitalization of each arable acre to its price based on its expected return quite as this is done in the case of factories?68
It is not for us here to discuss further the older conception of capital here involved. We had supposed that it had become unthinkable in the atmosphere of Columbia and of Yale, under the influences of J. B. Clark and of Irving Fisher.
Surely we are making some progress in formulating more clearly the issues involved in the interest problem. The opinions we have reviewed face in at least three different directions, not squarely opposing each other.69 Seager and Brown stand together on one side of the circle of opinion, glancing now and then with one eye at a psychological explanation (for consumption loans) and with the other eye fixed most of the time on the enterpriser-productivity explanation. They are not far away from Böhm-Bawerk, who is likewise eclectic; but their conception of productivity goes little farther than the personal enterpriser, whereas Böhm-Bawerk seeks, though vainly, in his roundabout theory, to extend his explanation formally to the impersonal productive powers in the agents. Nearly opposite them stands Fisher, directing his attention mainly upon the market for money loans, but giving many glances before and after to the psychological causes, in accord with the capitalization theory. The capitalization theorist at another point in the circle is faced directly toward the psychological explanation of interest, and sees the other features of the picture in due perspective to this central fact.
Seen from any of these standpoints, the interest paid on consumption loans is and must be explained in purely psychological terms. The capitalization theory, alone, is not eclectic, and explains interest on consumption and on production loans, in the same psychological terms. It alone sees the enterpriser's part embraced within the larger circle of time-preference, and explains interest on productive loans as but the reflection of the time-preference in the minds of the great body of buyers in the community, whose representatives and intermediaries the enterprisers are.
Capitalization versus Productivity: Rejoinder
Dr. Brown's restatement of the productivity theory of interest has one distinctive merit. It abandons the attempt to make a fallacious enterprise-profit rate of productivity an element in the explanation. Every previous formulation, not excepting Dr. Brown's own, has been open to this charge. The recent discussion has yielded a substantial result in this admission that the productivity theorist is bound to show the existence of a definite rate of physical productivity to which the rate of interest conforms, quite apart from any borrowing producers’ rate of profit. Dr. Brown courageously undertakes this task, and his results must be judged by this criterion.
At the same time, however, he prudently limits his defense to the very narrowest scope that ever has been claimed for the theory. He makes a virtue of eclecticism (p. 349), and claims for productivity only a little part, an irreducible minimum. In the manner much in vogue since Böhm-Bawerk led the way, he concedes much of the field to the purely psychological explanation. Interest admittedly would exist in a world of desires and mere scarcity, without physical productivity, either direct or indirect for that matter. The capitalization theory alone could apply in such cases. It is admitted further that time-preference exists in every case, as well where there is as where there is not physical production of indirect agents. The claim Dr. Brown
In still another respect Dr. Brown attempts (as he says on page 340 was his purpose in his former article) to limit the productivity theory, namely by treating it not as a part of the value-theory, but as dealing “with quantities of goods instead of with values.” It is no minor matter to which I am here directing the reader's attention. It concerns the whole conception of the problem. The proposition speaks a different language from that of an interest-theory, and concerns a different question. So long as Dr. Brown limits his attention to amounts of income as absolute quantities, he is in the realm of the rent-, or more broadly, of the income-problem. This is arguing at cross purposes with the capitalization theory, and is not within range of the interest problem. A theory of interest must be essentially a value-theory. The thing to be explained is the ratio between the value of the income and the value of the income-bearer. There is a courageous logic, to a certain point, in Dr. Brown's attempt. The only way the productivity theory could be saved from the vicious circle would be to find a rate inherent in the physical process, in the relation between quantities of future goods and quantities of indirect agents, independent of the value-expression. But this attempt is vain. Fruits can be expressed for economic purposes as a percentage of trees not as physical quantities, but only as value-relations in terms of some standard. Usually the money standard is chosen: Dr. Brown chooses a present-fruit value standard and does not see that he is doing it. To say that 1,000 present fruit equals 1,100 future fruit is to express a value relation. Equal how? Evidently not in quantity, for they are unequal, but in value. It is a psychological not a physical ratio. If, now, the productivity part of the problem be considered, 10 present trees equal 1,100 future fruit. Again we ask, equal in what way? Evidently not in quantity, but only in value? Where then is the ten per cent ratio? The answer comes that 10 present trees equal 1,100 future fruit and at the same time equal 1,000 present fruit; herein lies a ten per cent rate of productivity. A certain value of labor invested in trees yields a ten per cent value surplus at the end of a year. Enter the value relation disguised as a rate of physical productivity.
One who for years has trailed the elusive cost-of-production fallacy, can not fail to see in Dr. Brown's novelty the old illusion in a very thin new disguise. It is a very versatile and persistent fallacy. Böhm-Bawerk effectively exposed the old form of the doctrine, and then, as every student now knows, fell into the same pit when he formulated his own positive theory. Whoever lays claim to the discovery of some slightly different device for squaring this circle, opens up anew for himself, if not for others, all the old puzzling questions. To answer all the doubts reawakened in his mind it would be necessary to resurvey the whole wide field of the interest-controversy. Space will be taken for only one other brief criticism (among many possible), but that one alone destructive of Dr. Brown's central conception of a regulative rate of physical productivity. With this I will be content to rest, for the present, the case for the capitalization theory.
The semblance of a rate of physical productivity which Dr. Brown discovers, appears only when, side by side, two methods of production are in use, one new and the other old. As long as the two methods so continue, a unit of labor has equal value whether applied to present fruit or to trees; but how long can this continue? Only so long as the rate of time-preference happens to coincide with this so-called rate of productivity. Time-preference existed before the new method was discovered; it continues to exist afterward. If when the new technical method is discovered in the assumed case, time-preference happens to be over ten percent, the new method is uneconomic and can not be adopted; if it happens to be under ten per cent then the old method is uneconomic and must be abandoned as fast as the shift can be made. Time-preference dominates the choice among technical methods. When all the fruit comes to be obtained by the roundabout method, and the supply of present fruit is 1,100 a year, where is the supposed regulative ten per cent ratio of physical productivity? It does not exist. Abandoned methods of production simply do not function in fixing either the present price of goods (either trees or fruits) or the rate of time-preference. The abandoned method becomes ancient history. Time-preference must be adjusted in the new conditions—a more bountiful environment. (In my former article I touched upon the probability as to the rate of time-preference in such a case.) There is greater productivity than before but no “rate of productivity” whatever, is the sense of Dr. Brown's theory. The capitalization theory is alone left to explain the rate of interest in this situation, and time-preference never ceases to function.
Now and then in a maladjusted economy the interest rate might be found to coincide with this curious phenomenon which Dr. Brown believes to be a rate of physical productivity. It is only the semblance of such a rate, being but the reflection of a rate of time-preference when an indifferent choice is possible between a direct and an indirect method of production. This is always but a limited aspect of a dynamic situation (where I have always recognized that it has a place), which in the theory before us is hopelessly confused with the static problem of interest.
Interest Theory and Price Movements
HISTORICAL STAGES IN THE CONCEPTION OF THE INTEREST PROBLEM
1. Purpose of this essay.—What is now usually known as “interest theory” will perhaps be conceded by all to be the subtlest and most difficult problem in the broad field of economic theory. Various opinions upon it and its solution have in turn been dominant, and probably every one of these still survives and is today held in some quarter, scientific or popular. Even in the narrower circle of experts and special students, the differences of conception are perhaps more fundamental and far-reaching than in any other subject of theory.
This problem being intimately related to many others having theoretical and practical bearings, the center of discussion has shifted greatly throughout the centuries. In ancient and medieval times, it was viewed as little more than a phase of just price, and attempts to explain the phenomenon of interest rates were merely incidental to arguments on the ethics of usury. Even the more recent discussions of the subject from Senior's abstinence theory to the work of J. B. Clark, of Böhm-Bawerk, of Wieser, and of others, reveal clearly this motive. The income taking the form of “interest” has borne and still has to bear the main shock of communistic attack upon the institution of private property, although Henry George's brilliant sally diverted a considerable part of the reforming zeal to the attack upon land
There ought to be at this time no such mutual suspicion, but rather closer co-operation between the students of quantitative measurements and those dealing with the more philosophic phases of economic inquiry. Each method and each point of view is in turn needed—now to present working hypotheses, then to test them; now to relate newly discovered facts to the existing body of knowledge, again to reappraise older accepted views in the light of new evidence.
Especially in this phase of the study of the business cycle, to wit, the relation of interest rates and interest theory to general price movements, the interchange of thought between students with different methods has been lacking. Apparently most of those especially devoted to the study of the business cycle have remained indifferent to, and negligent of, the more recent novel studies and radical conceptions in this field of theory. There is, to be sure, still lacking agreement among economists both as to the theory and as to the terminology of interest. But it seems possible that a resurvey of interest history and theory, and a statement of some of the newer speculative aspects may result in some fruitful cross-fertilization of thought in this important subject.
2. Amount-of-money conception of the interest problem.—David Hume, writing around 1752, combatted prevailing opinion when he declared: “Lowness of interest is generally ascribed to plenty of money.” This seems to be a fair statement of the notion implied at least, if not always clearly formulated, in the moral condemnation of interest on money loans from Aristotle through the era of the church canonists. Interest was thought of as paid for the use of money, as land rent was paid for the use of land. But money “cannot breed money,” as land can breed crops and feed flocks; money is the “barren breed of metal.” Even to scholars, as well as to the populace, the price paid for the use of money (quite like that of other things) seemed to depend on the plenty or scarcity of the precious metals. Certainly this notion still is the natural, naive, popular view, coming to the surface again and again, as in the Greenback program of the 70's and 80's, in the Populist movement of the 90's, in many contemporary pamphlets sent for the enlightenment of academic economists by amateur reformers, and even promulgated by distinguished inventors and manufacturers, who are novices in economic theory.
This erroneous notion Hume rejected, declaring at once: “But money, however plentiful, has no other effect, if fixed, than to raise the price of labor” (“and,” he added a little later, “commodities”). After appealing to certain economic facts since the discovery of the Indies, he concludes: “The rate of interest, therefore, is not derived from the quantity of the precious metals.” Before examining Hume's more positive thesis, let us observe that his negative thesis relates to static conditions as to the money stock, the quantity of monetary metals, in a country. He touches elsewhere only briefly on certain historical dynamic conditions, long-time rather than short-time in nature, in which he thinks that increase in a nation's money and a sinking interest (rate) go together. But, he says, it is a mistake to consider the greater quantity of money the cause of the lowness of interest. This is to mistake “a collateral effect for a cause.”
3. Amount-of-riches conception; Hume's psychological germ.—What was Hume's positive thesis; what explanation of the rate of interest did he propose in place of the one he rejected? The real cause of lowness of interest, he says, is growth of industry in the state, etc., which same cause both attracts “great abundance of the precious metals” and lowers interest. “The most industrious nations always abound most with precious metals; so that low interest and plenty of money are in fact almost inseparable.” The generally accepted interpetation of Hume's view was expressed more than a century later by Böhm-Bawerk in these words: “The height of the interest rate in a country does not depend on the amount of currency that the country possesses, but on the amount of its riches or stocks.”1
Since Hume's time until very recently that proposition, with various explanations and elaborations, has been the center of nearly all the theories of interest having a considerable following among liberal economists. It is the core of all the productivity and use theories. But Böhm-Bawerk's generally accepted summation of Hume's thought is far too simple to do justice to it, and Böhm-Bawerk's notion of “riches or stocks” is much narrower than is necessarily implied in Hume's words. One must, to be sure, beware of the temptation to read into Hume's language an attitude toward modern issues of which he was quite unaware. But Böhm-Bawerk himself has not escaped that error. His interpretation of Hume's essay is that of one holding firmly, as the Austrian economist did, to the tripartite division of the factors, and to the notion of capital as a distinct group of artificial agents—as he did after elaborate studies despite some inconsistences.2
But there is required no undue stretching of Hume's words to find in them room for a broader thought of a psychological explanation of interest, though the dim outlines of this are only imperfectly sketched. Hume says: “High interest arises from three circumstances [and italicizes three]: A great demand for borrowing, little riches to supply that demand, and great profits arising from commerce.... Low interest, on the other hand, proceeds from the three opposite circumstances: a small demand for borrowing, great riches to supply that demand, and small profits arising from commerce.” It is true that this merely states the problem rather than gives a full explanation, recognizing which, Hume says: “We shall endeavor to prove these points; and shall begin with the causes and the effects of a great demand or small demand for borrowing.”
Our limits forbid following here his detailed argument. We would point out only that it abounds with references to psychological factors as causal and antecedent to the quantity of riches and to the rate of profits: different tempers, prodigals, misers, desire to consume, pursuit of pleasure, differences in habits and manners, and in customs; and along with these goes a penetrating discussion of the comparative influence of large landholding and commerce upon the motives of industry and frugality, determining whether or not money gathers into large stock into the hands of those who are willing to lend it at a low interest. The discussion of the third circumstance requisite to produce lowness of interest is, however, very superficial, dissolving into the agnostic proposition that the two things, low interest and low profits, “both arise from an extensive commerce, and mutually forward each other” but it is “needless to inquire which is the cause and which the effect.”
Indeed, Hume's discussion, as a whole, never gets very far beneath the surface; it merely makes a beginning along lines in which little progress was made (excepting only in the abstinence concept) for nearly a century and a half. In one respect, however, Hume's essay indeed marks an epoch in the history of the interest theory; thereafter (except as a popular fallacy) the abundance-of-money-conception was definitely displaced by the abundance-of-goods-conception. The orthodox liberal doctrine (despite other differences) became Hume's proposition that we really and in effect borrow labor and commodities when we take money upon interest.
4. Turgot's limited capitalization theory.—Turgot's brilliant little essay in 1770 displayed in several respects an insight into the essential nature of economic problems, hardly to be equalled again for more than a century. Though he begins his discussion of interest with a narrow conception of “capitals” as consisting of “the accumulation of annual produce not consumed,” otherwise called “moveable riches,” he at once speaks of these riches as “advances” (not just when loaned—that is, “advanced” to a person—that comes later—but “advanced” when used on land, in industry or in commerce). He then gives throughout his treatment unusual prominence to the notion of time, using repeatedly the term “waiting” to describe what the advances enable workers of all kinds to do. He then turns his thought at once to the various “employments of capitals” among which a person may choose who has “accumulated value”; that is, funds available for investment. It is remarkable that he speaks first not of manufacturing, agriculture (i.e., capitalist farming), and commerce, and the loan of money at interest (these follow in order), but of “the purchase of an estate of land.” Here he sketches, in scanty lines, to be sure, but clearly, a capitalization theory of land value, “what is called the penny of the price of lands,” resulting from “the varying proportion between people who wish to sell or buy lands.” Böhm-Bawerk in his critique dismissed this disparagingly as “a fructification theory of interest,” “an explanation in a circle” because he believed Turgot was trying to explain “all forms of interest as the necessary result of the circumstance that any one who has a capital may exchange it for a piece of land bearing a rent.”
But this seems to me to miss in Turgot's discussion its most significant and unique feature. Turgot is seeking to explain, as he says, the valuation of lands in accordance with the proportion which the revenue bears to the value for which they are exchanged, and he does this first without once referring to the current rate of interest on loans or to the current rate of profits in other business (or without taking a rate found in financial markets to use as a capitalization rate in explaining the price of lands). Turgot pretty clearly conceived of an investment rate in land (that is, a discount, or capitalization rate) as discoverable and usable by the simple adjustment of supply and demand of buyers and sellers of land. It is true that Turgot, as he proceeds, shows that the various employments of capital are mutually related in their rates of return by the possibility of shifting investments. But this is valid and does not conflict with his thought of the capitalization of land as occurring primarily through the working of forces independent of the market for monetary loans. Such a view of the possibility of the land capitalization process being prior to the contractual interest rate is not found again until after the beginning of the twentieth century. It is still quite rare. Turgot's view of capitalization, it should be observed, though clear, is limited to explaining the valuation of land. He does not go on to develop a general capitalization theory that would explain in an analogous way the valuation of other “capitals” such as houses, machinery, etc., as built upon and derived from the revenue (or series of future uses) contained in them. Such a conception seems never to have entered his mind. His discussion abounds, however, with references to the influence of waiting, and of time.
One other remark before leaving this question. It may be retorted to Böhm-Bawerk's characterization of Turgot's interest theory as one of “fructification,” that more truly Böhm-Bawerk himself (and every other productivity theorist holding the conventional artificial goods capital concept) may be said to uphold a partial fructification theory, the very counterpart of that which he accuses Turgot of presenting. To wit: having explained the contractual interest rates superficially as arising in the market for monetary loans, and then having sought to carry the explanation deeper by tracing this contractual interest rate to the “productive services” of “artificial” man-made capital goods, the productivity theorist then has no other way of explaining the capitalization of land and natural agents, but to borrow the interest rate determined in the field of “artificial capital” with which to discount the rents and other expected incomes of “natural” agents.3 This is done without the slightest misgiving or thought that in the individual valuation and the purchase or sale of natural durable agents there can reside an independent source of discount and capitalization rates.
5. Time and Senior's abstinence concept.—Many passages glimpsing the relation of time to the employment of capital could undoubtedly be collected from the economic literature of the nineteenth century, but they were nearly all ultimately fruitless of effects upon the development of interest theory. The outstanding exception is Senior's notion of abstinence (1836) which was a theoretical seed of a different, more psychological conception of the interest problem. It did, indeed, fall by the wayside, but it germinated and lived on there the stole sprig of psychological capital-theory until the new era of thought at the end of the century. It is a curious jumble of ideas as set forth by its author. Senior called abstinence variously a third agent, an instrument of production, a principle, a productive power, alongside of, but distinct from, “labour and the agency of nature, the concurrence of which is necessary to the existence of capital.” He called abstinence “the conduct of a person,” and “an additional sacrifice made when labour is undergone for a distant object”; he described it as “providence” united with “self-denial.” But again he said the name was a substitute for “capital,” defined as “an article of wealth,” and he spoke repeatedly of labor, natural agents, and abstinence as the three instruments of production. This was very confused thinking, but at least it brought into the foreground of the problem the much neglected motives involved (in Senior's words) in “the production of remote rather than of immediate results” in undergoing labor “for a distant object,” in abstaining “from the unproductive use” of what one commands, or, “from the enjoyment which is in our power.” Incidentally, also, Senior discussed rather more than was usual “the average period of advance of capital,” and recognized that before the capitalist can retain a profit he must see to “keeping the value of his capital unimpaired.” But these ideas underwent no systematic or satisfactory development at his hands.
6. Influence of the artificial goods capital concept.—The history of interest theory among liberal economists for more than a century, from Adam Smith to Böhm-Bawerk, runs narrowly within the limits of the amount-of-goods (“riches or stocks”) conception of Hume. But it was profoundly affected by the chance that the term “riches or stocks” came to be identified with the artificial goods concept of capital in the tripartite division of the factors of production, land, capital, and labor. A false symmetry was thus given to the structure of the theory of distribution, rent as a form of income being limited and bound to the natural factor land as its source, and interest as a form of income being viewed as coextensive with the “artificial” man-made factor capital. There was nothing in the inherent nature of the case to prevent the term “riches or stocks” from being taken in a broader sense, including in amount of goods everything to buy which borrowed funds might be used, such as lands for arable and other agricultural uses, and all natural agencies such as residence and business sites, mineral deposits, etc. But already with Adam Smith this linking of interest (and profits) with artificial stocks was apparent, and Ricardo's development of the labor-theory of value and its application to the capital concept (capital merely embodied labor) crystallized this notion that interest was a phenomenon and a form of return linked solely with “produced means of production,” not with goods in general.
This conception of the economic factors and their related yields remained almost unquestioned until near the last decade of the nineteenth century. I uphold the opinion that both on theoretical and on practical grounds the attempt to classify material goods as artificial and natural according to the assumed source of their value is unsound. Enough that it involves the fallacy of the labor theory of value. But even those who still accept this classification must concede that it led to a very unreal and illogical restriction of the broader problem of interest. It quite obscured the significance of time as a general factor in the use of goods of every kind, though always in a vague way time was felt to have somewhat more to do with interest and artificial capital than with rent and land. The linking of abstinence exclusively with the origin of artificial goods dwarfed the development of that conception and prevented the recognition of “conservative”4 abstinence as an essential form of conduct in the use, maintenance of and investment in, material resources and agents, no matter what their physical origin or the cause of their value. Such a narrow conception of the “riches or stocks” whose amount determined the rate of interest blocked the way to any general theory of capitalization applicable alike to “natural” land and to “produced” capital. All problems of capitalization of lands, i. e., natural resources in general, have by this conception to be treated as outside the realm of interest-fixing facts. Capitalization in all such cases can only be explained by the naive device of applying to land rents, mining royalties, and other future incomes from various sources, a rate of interest (or discount) that is supposed to be determined solely in the realm of artificial agents (in essence a “fructification” theory of the sort condemned, yet used, by Böhm-Bawerk.)5
7. Böhm-Bawerk's promise and disappointment.—These notions were deeply imbedded in the “classical” economics and still continue to have a phenomenal influence on thought. A most striking example is seen in the case of Böhm-Bawerk. Though at one point in his studies he had the conviction that the interest problem was really the broad one of the “agio,” or difference in value, of labor and of uses of goods of all kinds in relation to time, he finally relapsed into the old simple conception of interest as arising only in connection with “produced” capital. (But note his incidental and inconsistent treatment of land rent as a case of interest from durable agents.) Böhm-Bawerk in his great critical first volume saw, as the essential lack in all foregoing theories, the failure to explain adequately the rate of interest as a valuation relationship between the capital sum and the interest (income or yield). He condemned in principle all productivity and use theories. Likewise his elaborate preparatory work on the theory of prices in his second volume, “Positive Theory,” seems to have been directed toward the end of explaining the valuation of capital as the sum of the expected values, the summation of the future uses and rents contained in stocks of economic agents. But he had closed the door to any solution in that direction by adopting the old Ricardian capital concept, “produced means of production,” thus seeking to explain the origin of this group of durable artificial indirect goods and their valuation by means of a thinly disguised labor theory of value—in their past, not in their future uses. That is, he developed no theory of capitalization, though several times he seems on the point of doing so.6 He relapsed into a productivity theory of interest, and he failed, just as he had shown so many others to have failed, in explaining the rate of interest as a percentage of a principal sum, as a surplus of price over and above the initial capital price of the series of future uses.
8. Clark's “pure capital” and timeless production.—J. B. Clark, like Böhm-Bawerk, became convinced of the inadequacy of past interest theory. But the beginning of his contribution lay at a very different point, namely, in exposing the ambiguity of the current capital concept, especially in his recognition of its neglected value aspect alongside of the conventional artificial concrete goods aspect.7 Hardly second to this in significance and intimately connected with it, is Clark's broadening of the conception of the things comprising capital, making it inclusive of land and natural agents, indeed, logically, of every intangible right to income in which “a fund of pure capital” (as he calls it) may be invested. Pure capital as a private, business concept, became essentially an investment fund, though Clark gave it less practical expression. It cannot be said, though, that Clark succeeded any better than Böhm-Bawerk in explaining the genesis of capital valuations. He too seeks the answer in the past of goods rather than in the anticipation of future uses, and develops an abstinence theory to account for the technical, physical beginnings of “capital goods” in a manner inconsistent with his own inclusion of land together with artificial agents in the capital goods concept. He too accounts for the valuation of the pure capital by sacrifice incurred at the origin of artificial goods—a psychic cost concept. Clark too is wanting in any capitalization or recapitalization theory that relates capital value to anticipated incomes in general. He too concludes with a productivity theory of interest, in which the “interest” sum is looked upon as the specific product of the capital and is related to the capital-goods as a rent rather than as a rate per cent upon a capital-sum.
In one important feature Clark's treatment of this problem is reactionary just where the Austrian advanced the discussion most; that is, in the importance of the role assigned to time. Böhm-Bawerk, it is my belief, started on the right road toward an understanding of the time-factor, though he ultimately went astray on other paths without ever clearly recognizing how he had lost the road. But Clark never was on the right road and arrived at an explicit denial of any significance for time in the explanation of interest. It is the function of (pure) capital, he declared, to synchronize the outlay of labor and its fruits, and he attempted to prove this by an argument palpably fallacious.
It is one of the misfortunes of economic theory that Böhm-Bawerk and Clark, who had many theoretical virtues in common, could not have got together on their main differences. Böhm-Bawerk's initial conception of time needed to be combined with Clark's value concept of capital, and both freed from a labor theory of value influence. The results surely would have been much nearer a true solution than is either of the old-fashioned productivity theories of interest dressed up in new-fangled terminology with which these two pioneer thinkers terminated their arduous labors. Each was destined to give a new impulse to thought, and each disagreed with the main conclusions of the other; yet both came to results that seem singularly alike in certain respects. Böhm-Bawerk's interest theory after some early attacks upon it by the older school of economics, English and American, was adopted by them very generally with little modification, and is now the theory most widely accepted, in type, if not in all details; while Clark's notion of capital value has likewise gained wide vogue. Thus, views which their authors had expected to be revolutionary could be accepted and incorporated into the conventional system of thought of the orthodox school just because the original ideas had not been consistently developed. The doctrines at first novel were at last accepted not as strangers but as old, familiar friends.
9. Productivity interest theory.—The negative and critical work of Böhm-Bawerk and Clark raised issues which their positive theories did not suffice to settle. It is true that two dynamic decades of widespread discussion of this and related topics in economic theory were followed after about 1900 by an equal period of reaction, or at least a prevailing lassitude, in theory. The majority of economists were inclined to take the various more or less novel and conflicting notions that had appeared, and to merge them into an eclectic body of doctrine, which it was believed, or hoped, might be generally accepted and initiate an era of theoretical harmony. To a remarkable degree this policy seemed to succeed. Alfred Marshall, the leader of this eclectic movement as well as its most typical representative, took from the first this attitude toward the work of Böhm-Bawerk.8 Marshall's eclectic formula of the two qualities in capital of prospectiveness and productiveness became the mode among English and American economists. To the influence of J. B. Clark, and perhaps in part to Wieser's general imputation theory, is traceable a related but more systematic formulation of a general theory of the specific productivity (or productive contribution) of each of the factors, a conception almost, if not quite, as widely favored in the text books as that of Marshall. In all these cases the “productivity” of capital (as a certain limited group of material artificial agents) is viewed as the cause and source of the yield or income called interest (implicit as well as explicit). It is assumed that this “productivity” (vaguely assumed to be a technological fact, but always shifting its character to value-productivity, a fact of private profit in the broader sense) serves to explain not merely the amount or price sum yielded by a group of “capital goods” but also the rate per cent of yield computed on the valuation of the principal, or capital value. It ought to be evident without argument to any one acquainted with Edwin Cannan's work9 that when this shift is made the interest rate per cent of “productivity” of capital value becomes something quite unco-ordinated with the per acre amount or per man amount of productivity of the other factors. A rate per cent yield from the investment of borrowed “capital” is a fact of general bearing, not related solely to the “productivity” of artificial agents contrasted with that of land per acre and of labor per man, but related equally to the profit productivity of labor hired and of land and natural agents either hired or bought by the use of any investment fund (owned or borrowed).
All this relates solely to the explanation of interest on “productive” capital, used in business, but what of the case of interest on enjoyable goods (“consumption goods” so called)? When this problem is recognized at all (frequently it is not) in no case is the claim made that interest can be explained by “productivity.” Another, supplemental, explanation is here conceded by the productivity theorist to be necessary, which is essentially that of time-preference. Thus every productivity interest theorist who has faced the whole question holds a dual theory, or, rather, two quite distinct theories, of interest, one to cover the case of indirect goods (sometimes limited to those employed in commercial ways) and another to cover that of direct (i. e., enjoyable) goods. Numerous further difficulties of the productivity theory have been discussed by the writer elsewhere, and need not be repeated here.10
10. Sources of a general time-valuation theory.—Böhm-Bawerk and Clark, united, were more potent to arouse discussion of the interest problem than, divided, they had been to give it a satisfactory solution. This at least was the verdict of a small group of students who were not satisfied with the eclectic results just indicated. Though the subject claimed the attention of a much smaller proportion of economists after 1900, it continued to be studied with undiminished zeal by a few. They felt profound discontent with the outcome and they had hope of something better, of winning, so to speak, some purer metal from the rich nuggets of truth that had been unearthed by the newer criticism. Negative criticism of unprecedented keenness and quality had revealed the ambiguity or untenableness in logic of various of the older conceptions and thus had made deep breaches in the old structure of distributive theory, calling for some fundamental reconstruction. Yet with superficial repairs the old structure had been restored and reoccupied. The most brilliant flashes of insight by the pioneers in the interest discussion had faded into darkness and had not lighted the way to any constructive results.
Suggestions have been given above of some of these ideas that were glimpsed by Böhm-Bawerk and by Clark, especially those of a pervasive premium (agio) for time, of the true nature of the capitalization process in the case of any series of uses, of the capital value concept, etc. No one of these was consistently developed, and they were left as mere passing suggestions off the main line of economic thought. Besides these squandered or misprized resources of theory, there were many others waiting to be utilized. There was the abstinence concept, still, after nearly three-quarters of a century, in as crude a form as that in which Senior had left it, confused between technological and value or investment relationship, and tied to a narrow notion of artificial capital. There was the thought, given wide currency in the text by F. A. Walker (borrowed by him from some earlier source), that time change is a cause of value co-ordinate with stuff, place, and form. This thought, to be sure, was not developed by Walker, and he did not see in it the revolutionary possibilities of a general theory of time-valuation in relation to all kinds of goods. There was the new academic subject of accountancy beginning to attract attention to the exacter mathematical expression of time relations in investments, and especially to the process of recapitalization according to changes in earnings. There were certain elementary notions of actuarial science and practice that began to filter into the class rooms of theory, as insurance, forestry, corporation finance, valuation of utilities, and other related subjects were taking their place in the university curriculum. There was the increasing attention to the human and psychological aspects of economic problems, begun by “the marginalists” Jevons, Clark, and the Austrians. However faulty their technical psychology (ranking thus probably in the order just named) and however faultily applied, they had in this matter initiated a new era, whose broadening application of psychology to economics and sociology we are still witnessing.11 And finally (for we can here touch only a few of the high points), there was the influence of the newer economic history in which, at least a few avid students of theory began to find rich suggestions for destructive critique of the conventional, orthodox, commercial system of economics (especially distributive theory). No eclectic can hope to begin to understand the continued discussion of the interest theory after 1900 unless he gives due consideration at least to these elements in the situation. Otherwise he catches only fragmentary glimpses of the movement and fails to see its broader implications. Many minds contributed some elements to this process of thought though the participation of some was either meagre or of short duration. Besides those whose names have repeatedly appeared above, noteworthy contributions were made by Ashley, Cunningham, Toynbee, Edwin Cannan, Carver, Veblen, Davenport, Turner, and others.
The positive outline of the time-valuation theory has been most fully presented in two versions—that of Professor Irving Fisher and that of the writer. These differ in the mode of approach and in emphasis, and in a number of details, some of them unquestionably of considerable importance.12 But in regard to the larger issue, the two versions are in substantial agreement. Fisher's treatment is that of the mathematician and accountant, conceiving of the whole process as one of buying and selling future incomes. My approach and treatment has always been rather historical and genetic, with a greater stress on the psychological and human factors. Though begun and largely developed before the term “institutional economics” was coined, it might even be deemed to be in some respects an essay of that type. Especially, it treats the interest rate not as a thing apart from the general price system, but rather finds its explanation interwoven with the whole process of price formation, from its earliest beginnings to the complex price system of the modern world. Such a view of the interest problem is much more closely bound up with the business cycle than any productivity theory limited to artificial capital goods or to industrial profits could possibly be. We will therefore seek to restate the time-valuation theory with more definite regard to its use in this connection, in the hope that by the cross-fertilization of ideas ways may be found to make the statistical analysis of the business cycle yield larger fruits.
TIME-VALUATION AND THE CAPITALIZATION THEORY
1. Individual time valuation without trade.—Contractual interest (as a rate per cent) is a relatively superficial phenomenon. It is also, in economic history a very recent phenomenon on any considerable scale. It appeared subsequent to the use of money and to a regime of monetary prices. If, therefore, any causal relation is historically traceable, interest appears as an effect rather than as a cause of prices. It is impossible to conceive of a general rate of interest, expressed as a percentage of the principal sum, antedating any system of prices; whereas it is possible to picture, as antedating both interest and monetary prices, a system of non-monetary, barter prices, involving ratios of exchange between commodities. Indeed early economic history shows us such systems on quite extended scales, interwoven more or less on the one hand with caste, status, feudal and manorial relations, and on the other with the embryonic forms of monetary trading. The ancient and medieval conception of justum pretium was deeply rooted in this notion of the fair and normal ratios of goods. However, after monetary prices do appear, they may become mutually related to barter prices, and somewhat modify them through causing changes in modes of trade and of production.
But we must go deeper still in tracing back historically and analysing logically into its simplest elements the modern complex relations of the time element to prices. Even the exchange ratios of goods in the simplest barter and in primitive barter markets appear subsequent in time, and must be logically subsequent to, long-prevailing schemes and systems of valuations of goods in terms of each other, in tribal, village, family, and individual life. In all the modern textbook expositions of price, it is assumed that the individual trader approaches a trade with some scheme of choice, or state of mutual valuations of goods, and the careful use of this notion will hardly be denied validity. But this must not be taken to imply that once the individual has access to barter and markets, his scale of valuation is unaffected by trading opportunities, by past experiences, and by habits formed, in the market.
In the very earliest pre-barter, pre-market choices of primitive man, time-valuation must have entered into the scheme of choice, as it must today in the most simple, isolated acts of men apart from markets and the developed apparatus of price adjustment. Except for a due recognition of the mutual influence of folks on each other's social standards, etc., it would be putting the cart before the horse to find the cause of the individual's time-preferences in the state of preference discovered by him and borrowed by him from other persons in the market. Rather we must seek an explanation outside of this circular, endless chain of causation, to wit, in the nature of man's desire for goods and in the particular circumstances of plenty, scarcity, and provision for need, as modified by intelligence, customs, training, habit, and social relations.
The fact that time differences in the availability of concrete goods (and also of their separate uses) do cause choice-differences cannot be disputed. Generally viewed, it appears that the more animal-like the stage and the more primitive the people, the greater the preferences for immediate appropriation and use over postponement. However, some curious exceptions are found in primitive communities, supported usually by religious tabus or sanctions. It is only slowly that this difference in choice is diminished, with the growth of social institutions, customs and habits. We cannot imagine, therefore, any individual, family, or larger group economy, either the most simple or the most complex, where there would not be involved in the system of valuations reflected by and implied in the relative valuations themselves, differences in choice due to time; that is, due to the differences in the desires for goods at certain time locations and not due to physical differences either in quality or quantity of the goods when they are ripe for use. It is a case where quality and kind are the “other things equal,” and time preference reflects the unequal conditions of choice, such as appetite, mood, fatigue, companionship, etiquette, and many other things that affect merely the time of greater impulse, drive, or desire.
Experience and observation teach that in the vast majority of cases the preference is very marked for present goods over future goods (and vice versa as to present and future ills) with children, savages, and the masses of mankind. But the growth of the spirit of providence and frugality means the growth of power and readiness to inhibit this choice of present in relation to future goods. It is not doing violence to the facts to say that individuals and families have, involved in their schemes of valuations, more or less definite rates of time-preference. This changing nature and force of time-choice cannot fail to modify the actions of men, determining what, when, and how they do things, what material things they use and how they use them, determining in large part what are the kinds and amounts of durable agents with which men surround themselves. Observe that this is all conceivable and actually occurs in countless cases, before or without the expression of these valuations in terms of monetary price, or even without the simplest barter. It is a system of individual choices of goods with implicit ratios of time-preference.
2. Time-valuations under barter.—The beginnings of barter arise out of such a system of time-valuations operating in individual, family, and group economies. The essential motive for the simplest trade can be found only in the fact that the trading parties have at a given moment unequal valuation ratios between specific goods (at least implicit in their drives and desires), and by trading bring these ratios more nearly into accord. Time-value is not a quality separate and apart from the total value of a concrete object (wealth) or of a specific act (labor); it is merely that part of the total value which in the particular circumstances is due to time relations, just as other parts of the value may be logically attributable to conditions of place, stuff, form, proprietorship, and manifold subjective factors in men. The time-value may be negative or nothing or little or much or all of the value of a certain good in a particular situation. It requires no stretch of imagination to picture trader. A having no present use whatever for commodity m which he possesses, but an intense desire for immediate use of commodity z; while trader B has no present use whatever for commodity z which he possesses, but an intense desire for commodity m. Yet at a later time the attitude of these two traders in respect to these two commodities might be reversed. Barter in such a case is simply the exercise of choice, in social circumstances, as to time-relations of goods and uses. Even when the contrast in the traders’ intensities of desire is less extreme than in the example, there must be usually some limit at which one or the other trader would cease to have a motive for trade, due to time-relations. These same differences in time-value explain likewise the simplest process of deferring payments, borrowing and lending, where the borrowed goods are returned later in kind, often because of tribal mores without bonus, but with usury exacted from a stranger. There appears no reason to doubt that time-differences are just as real and just as clearly the explanation of particular economic choices of wealth and of actions in the simple states of status and of barter, as are any other differences in the conditions of choice. When this time-valuation is not consciously expressed as to amount in a separate unit (as money) or as to rate per unit of time (discount or premium per annum), it may be very effectually embedded in a person's general system of contemporary valuations in the ratios of certain goods with others.
3. Time-valuation in a monetary price regime without loans.—Böhm-Bawerk, to whom we owe much for his emphasis of the psychological factor and for awakened thought on the interest problem, declared that “the kernel and center” of his own theory was the proposition: “as a rule, present goods have a higher subjective value than future goods of like kind and number.”13 He recognizes that this rule is subject to some exceptions but he considers these to be very rare.14 In reality, many present goods may be worth less to any and every individual than a like kind and number of future goods, notably seasonal goods, as ice in winter, fruit in summer, etc., as well as in many other specific situations where present individual desire is small compared with anticipated need for particular goods at some later point of time.
Now, suppose that one finds that his relative valuations of present and future goods of a certain like kind and quantity expressed in the price unit are out of accord with his own relative valuation of the time element in certain other kinds of goods. Or, again, suppose that one finds that his own time-valuations of particular goods are out of accord with the market rate which reflects the time-valuations of others, their estimates of the ratios of the present and future prices of the specific goods. In either case the person (except as deterred by the trouble of choosing and trading) would buy some and sell other specific goods, giving up the money that he has left or acquiring the money that he will either spend at once or keep as a “storehouse of value.” By this use of money evidently a person may often get some one else to supply him with more present goods or with a greater total of present and future goods of specific sorts than he could otherwise have, and at the same time the other person may gain by distributing his possessions better throughout time periods. In such cases money serves as a “storehouse of value” better than the other sorts of specific goods. And such a process of buying and selling (without lending or the use of credit) must tend to weave into the whole price fabric a certain general, average rate of premium of present dollars over future dollars which has resulted from leveling out and rounding off a great part of the individual differences, though considerable may remain. So, then, each unit of money would evidently buy durable goods which (barring mistakes and accidents) would rise in price throughout a given period in the ratio of the prevailing time-price embodied in the price of goods; and vice versa, the seller of durable goods to be used in the future would have to sell them for less than the price that would emerge in course of time. In other words discounts on future goods and uses, and premiums on present goods and uses, must interpenetrate into every corner of a price system and enter into almost every price quite apart from the use of credit in any form, to say nothing of lending money at interest.
4. Time-prices and time-shifts of goods.—In this process of price adjustment of goods in relation to time-periods many intricate practical problems must arise because of the different degrees of durability and preservability of goods, and because of the differences in the trouble and expense of keeping certain goods or of hastening the ripening of others. From the primitive eras of human industry, the shifting of goods in point of time was the purpose of many kinds of economic activities such as drying foods, smoking, cooking, salting, burying in the ground, storing, building caves and warehouses, oiling, painting or otherwise protecting many kinds of tools, agents, and supplies; and again the purpose is to ripen or otherwise hasten the time at which specific goods can be had for use. Some goods lend themselves readily to this process and others with difficulty. It is little trouble to keep some things, and they deteriorate little or none (e. g., the precious metals) while at the other extreme are things which defy all attempts to delay their use (or vice versa, to hasten it). Now almost every process of keeping things involves the giving up of labor and other goods which have value (or price) for alternative purposes; and besides there may be a loss in quality or in quantity, as in the rotting of fruit, the spoiling of meat, etc. All these subtractions from the physical quantity and quality of the goods to be kept, plus all the subtractions from other goods needed in the process, taken together, are charges upon the transfer of goods from one time-period to another quite analogous to freight charges for physical place change. (Conversely, there may be gains in physical quantity or quality.) This must give rise to many and complex adjustments in the relative prices of goods both contemporaneously and over periods of time. To take a comparatively simple case: suppose that apples may be kept in an ordinary cellar from September until March, but that one-half of those thus stored rot in the six months. A price per bushel in March twice as much as in September, plus the price (actual or alternative) of labor and storage space, might easily be three times as high as a September price. But at the ratio of three to one, March and September prices might not contain that prevailing premium on present dollar purchasing power needed to induce its investment for keeping these particular goods six months. The investment does not promise the prevailing increment of a higher net price in March while all around in the existing price system are alternative investments which do contain it. By choice the line is drawn between that time-shifting of goods which is warranted by time-price relations and that which is not. These differences may be reduced by shifting goods, but not to zero, any more than local differences in prices of goods can be reduced to nothing by transporting goods from the place of lower to place of higher valuations. Local prices of two exchanging markets still differ by the amount of the freights. The price system in any period of time viewed statically, contemporaneously, is linked up by countless acts of choice with the price system in succeeding periods of time, into a time-embracing price system. This is an unescapable conclusion from the phenomenon of individual time-valuations.
5. Capitalization in the pricing of durable agents.—We have spoken thus far of the price of concrete goods as wholes, having in mind, typically, goods that afford single uses (even though the goods may be preserved over a period of time). We now come to the price problem found in another more complex class of objects, which the older speculations on interest almost ignored. These are durable agents giving off a series of uses over a period of time. Such agents, as Böhm-Bawerk showed (without fully developing the thought in his interest theory) may be looked upon as containing separable uses arranged in time series which, like particular goods, often may be shifted forward and back in time in accord with differences in time-valuations. Around these durable goods, too, is built up a structure of time prices. The explanation of this process is the theory of capitalization that may fairly be said to be a product of twentieth century thought, so meager were the traces of it before.
It was one of the triumphs of the psychological marginal theorists, and pre-eminently the work of the Austrian school, to overthrow the old cost-of-production theory of prices and to replace it with an explanation beginning in the value of ultimate uses, and traced backward from them to agents. Every indirect agent derives its value (and its monetary price) from its products; it has not and cannot have ultimately any basis for its price except the price of its products, actual or expected; its price is simply the present price of the sum of all its future products (or of its separable uses). But in every existing price system the prices of like uses and of like ripe products differ according to time location; therefore the price (capitalization) of durable agents containing series of products equal in number and maturing price, must differ according to the maturing dates. For example, let one agent contain ten units of product yielded within a year (the agent being then used up) and another agent contain those same ten units yielded once a year for ten years, or once every two years for twenty years; clearly these various durable agents though they may contain equal sums of products (taken at their par, maturing valuations) would have unequal present (capital) values, if and whenever the present claims to the future products are taken as the sums they represent in the actual system of prices.
This way of looking at the origin and nature of the capitalization process is revolutionary of traditional and still widely current conceptions. The counting house and banking habit of mind has largely dominated economic thinking since the eighteenth century, and “interest theory” has been a phase of commercial economics with its disposition to regard as normal and permanent things just as they are. The economic man (still with us) is pictured as a merchant in a modern market, equipped with interest tables, aided by accountants, resorting every day to banks and the loan market, and consciously and mathematically estimating the present worth of durable agents and all other time series of products or incomes, by reference to the interest rate prevailing in his circles. So economists, even since they have begun to give attention to the capitalization process, continued to explain it by taking a mathematically expressed interest rate determined antecedently in the loan market and applying it as a discount rate to rents and future incomes to arrive at their present worth. The illusion persists even among some who in large measure accept time-valuation doctrines, that in no other way could capital values be arrived at by investors.
But our view of the capitalization process is utterly different. It is genetic and sees capitalization as a part of the earliest system of prices. It does not conceive of private property as “given in its finished scope and force” (as Veblen asserts is erroneously done in most current economic thinking). Rather it looks upon the price system of today and the habits of mind that go with it as comparatively recent developments, though having their origin before our banking and credit systems. The capitalization theory here outlined has been far more shaped by anthropology, economic history, and genetic psychology, than by continuing deductive, dogmatic, speculative studies.
Our thought is not that the earlier type of the capitalization process (which still persists in large measure today) involved the conscious recognition or explicit expression of a capitalization rate either derived from outside or inherent. But some rate becomes automatically involved in every price of durable goods (or series of incomes and of products) where time-location in any degree affects the valuation of the constituent elements making up the whole price of the thing. This phenomenon of discount of uses contained in any agent or source of incomes is correlated not with artificiality but with durability of the income bearer, because durability means continuance through time, and more or less extended periods between the present valuation and the maturity of the future use, product, or income, that is taken to be one of the constituent parts of the present agent. Thus the prices of ephemeral goods of present use contain little or no time discount, and durable goods (notably land and natural agents) contain more and more in proportion to the distance and time distribution of their uses.
The process of time-valuation is in large part one of trial and error, affected by imitation, habit, custom, social training, etc., and constantly adjusted in the light of experience within both the individual and the group economies. When, and to the extent that, competition operates, the persons who succeed, more or less gropingly or intuitively, in bringing their time estimates into some semblance of a true system of time-prices, are more successful buyers, holders, and users of wealth. Certainly after the use of money became common in medieval towns and markets, it was inevitable that time-discounts and premiums should permeate everywhere into the enlarging system of prices that was created. And these time-valuations (discounts) on future uses and products within the larger system of prices must themselves be built into a system reflecting a general rate, though varying just as prices do, in the various economies out-side the larger central markets. Such a price system as this is logically conceivable in a creditless, loanless, interestless community, and is indeed the kind of situation disclosed by economic history as existing before the rise of modern financial institutions and methods.
6. Capitalization and “the normal rate” of profits.—Such a price system embodying time discounts is not, however, conceivable without the accompaniment and result of a usual, normal rate of profit accruing to the buyers and owners of the durable agents. Since at least the days of Hume, a close connection has been seen to exist between the rate of profits secured by active enterprisers in their own businesses, and the prevailing rate of interest on commercial monetary loans.
However, from the first, it was seen that a distinction must be drawn between the usual, average or (as it came to be called) “natural” or “normal” rate of profits (which must be in the long run if the business is to attract enterprisers, and above which active competition will not for long periods permit it to remain) and the higher or lower rates which may prevail temporarily perhaps in particular places or branches of trade, and which may be attributed to accidental and unforeseeable causes, or to the presence or lack of special skill and of efforts by individual enterprisers.
It is therefore true that the close connection between the profit rate and the interest rate exists only at the moment of investment, as anticipated probable chance of profit (or income), and any additional profit (or loss) is either attributed to human effort or is absorbed in a recapitalization of the principal, the price of the enduring agents or property rights that give control of the income. The significance of this was, before recent capitalization theory, quite missed in the futile attempt to explain capital-values by cost of production. The long remarked “tendency of profits to equality” in various employments is rather more the result of the constant re-evaluation of existing durable agents and the tendency of their valuations to accord with revised estimates of their products than it is the effect of the cost of production of new agents of like kind, as held in orthodox doctrine.
At the moment of investment, however, the individual investor sees the two “normal” rates (of profits and of loan-interest) as mutually reacting and affecting each other, without having to think of their causal relations. Each offers to him a chance of gain and a choice for investment, and even economists’ thinking has often seemed to rest at that point. But if the question is raised, there are three possible types of answer. The interest rate might be the cause of the “normal” profit rate; or the reverse might be the case; or both rates might be the results of a common cause. The last of these is implied in the capitalization theory; but heretofore only one or the other of the first two theories seems to have found adherents.
7. The general interest rate and the profits rate.—Here, at length, we have arrived at the interest problem in the strict sense. What is the cause of, what makes possible, the prevailing interest rates on monetary loans? If the questions have been put, is interest the cause of profits or are profits the cause of interest, the answer, yes, has generally been given to the latter. For the “productivity theory” of interest, which in its various versions and degrees has held an overwhelming predominance in this field of thought, is really, when examined, found to mean this if it means anything. The vague and ambiguous term “productivity” is at first assumed to mean some kind of physical creation of product; but this conception being utterly unusable in an explanation of an interest rate (ratio of the value of product to the value of the agent or source), it is always quietly abandoned in favor of the value conception. Productivity is taken to mean an increment of value (price). But what kind of value and where found? Even in the most elaborate recent attempts to apply the marginal analysis to this question, the outcome of the reasoning is simply this: capital (as an investment sum) is “productive” in the sense that one having capital has normally a chance of making profits at the average prevailing rate, by investing it. So-called “productivity” means profit yielding, and “product” means merely investors’ profit. And what is the source and essential condition of this profit emerging at a rate on an investment? It is explained neither by physical productivity of agents nor by the value of products (or uses) taken at the time of their realization and maturity. It is explainable only by reference to the existing price system wherein goods containing postponed or future uses have been and are, when the loan is made, so priced (summed up, capitalized) in relation to time that as those uses mature and ripen they rise toward the parity of realized valuable uses. This normal profit-making “productivity of capital” is thus nothing but the reversal of the former discount-valuation applied to distant incomes. It is a psychological, valuation process, not a physical, technological process. Thus profits no more explain interest than interest explains profits. They offer alternative investment opportunities but neither is the cause of the other. Both opportunities result from discounts and premiums permeating the existing system of prices, and these are traceable to the fundamental factor of time-preference exercised by men individually and collectively in the complex environment of modern markets and prices.
8. Separate markets for time-prices.—A considerable usefulness cannot be denied to the notion of a general interest rate. But this notion, like that of a “normal rate of profits” is abstract; actually interest rates appear in great variety, and differ at any particular time among individual transactions, groups of traders, kinds of business, and types of loans. But, as in the case of profits, so of interest, the notion of a general, or normal, or prevailing rate is the result of analysing the various gross rates, attributing a large part of the differences to other causes (various kinds of chance, luck, individual skill, various service charges, and costs of making the loans, etc.), and looking upon the remainder as true or pure interest. Parts are thus imputed to costs, other parts to enterprise, and other parts perhaps for a time to rents (more or less permanent) which sums, in fact, enter into the recapitalized principal of the investment.
But if the safest, simplest and most marketable kind of loans, such as government bonds, give the index approximately to “pure interest,” quite persistent differences are seen to prevail among the rates in various loan markets, for commerce, for urban real estate, for agriculture, etc. Many such differences can be readily explained as due to the special factors of cost. The gross, or apparent, rates of interest do differ far more than the true, net interest, both to the lenders and to the borrowers.
It is impossible by this analysis to reduce all the apparently different rates in a country to a single true rate, either to lenders or to borrowers. The problem is analogous to that of differences between the commodity prices of two localities; these to be sure, differ by costs of transportation and tend toward a net equality to actual shippers, i. e., marginally; but that does not change the fact that local sellers get and local buyers pay higher prices in the one market than do sellers and buyers respectively in the other market. The differences persist, on the whole, through long periods as our own economic history abundantly shows. So likewise it is evident that in many neighborhoods and among various economic groups, larger or smaller, real differences in the prevailing interest rates may and do persist indefinitely. This may be despite extensive loans and the constant import and export of merchandise. Evidently, too, in such cases, the whole structure of prices must be both reflected in, and reflect, these differences. Capitalizations, the relative prices of present goods and of durable agents, and normal rates of profit in active business investments, as well as rates of interest, must, through the operation of competition and substitution, be brought into some measure of consistency, as respects the time-discounts in various goods and employments. Crude tools, ephemeral structures, high business profit rates, low present prices (large discounts) on future uses, and high rates of interest go together. Even within countries, provinces, neighborhoods, and in particular employments, real differences in all these facts can arise and persist, moderated but not destroyed by borrowing or by trade in goods. A limit to the equalizing of the time-rates in different markets is set by the lack of purchasing power to buy goods, and by inability of borrowers to give security enough to lenders in other communities to induce them to keep on lending. But not infrequently lenders in regions of lower time-valuation lend up to the limit of the wealth that backward communities can pledge, and even beyond, until a collapse of credit teaches its lesson. In the same country within the markets for commercial, agricultural, and urban real estate loans, within loan markets affected by different tax laws, and among groups of borrowers and lenders affected by tax-free features, there must be differences in rates that persist and that are reflected in the whole set of economic choices and the whole system of prices in each market and group.
Whatever be the relative prices of particular classes of goods, these prices would all be interpenetrated more or less consistently by the time-discount rate peculiar to each market or group. Any such system of prices having become fairly stable at any time and in any country, may be disturbed and altered by changes originating (1) in the medium-of-exchange mechanism, affecting more or less alike all prices, i. e., the general level of prices as expressed in index numbers; or (2) in conditions of time-valuations, acting upon time-prices and capitalization; or (3) in special conditions of demand and supply determining relative prices. The last of these is not negligible, but is of least importance to our present theme and must be passed over here. The first is for our purpose the most important and it will be considered on the assumption that a change occurs from the side of money without any change originating in the psychological factor of time-preference. Finally and more briefly, will be observed the case of individual time-preference changes (so widespread that they affect the prevailing market rates of time-discounts, etc.) without any change originating in the money supply or other exchange mechanism. We say “originating in” not “occurring in” to avoid any suggestion that such changes may not and do not occur as a result of the repercussions of the particular price adjustments in the new situations taken as wholes. Neither of these two problems (1 and 2 above) is simple, and it may be questioned whether the true nature and full bearing of either had been clearly recognized until within the last thirty years.
INTEREST RATES AND SOME PROBLEMS OF GENERAL PRICE CHANGES
1. Long-time changes in the general price level, and compensatory interest rates.—When, after 1873, the general price level had continued to fall for some years, the accompanying fall in interest rates on long-time loans attracted the attention of economists, notably that of J. B. Clark and of Irving Fisher, in the decade of the nineties. Alfred Marshall had briefly called attention, as early as 1886, and again in 1890,15 to the phenomenon later designated by the title of Professor Irving Fisher's notable monograph, “Appreciation and Interest.” Indeed it seems to have been glimpsed as early as 1802 by H. Thornton, and by Ricardo in his “Principles,” 1817. The discussion of this problem has been in part deductive and in part inductive through the use of statistical data. Take a period of falling prices resulting, let it be assumed, from a decrease, absolute or relative, of gold production. Then it was shown that when this trend becomes fairly definite and generally expected, prospective borrowers become more wary and prospective lenders more eager; for each compares the purchasing power of dollars when the loan is made with that of dollars when payments of interest and of the principal, respectively, will fall due. The borrowers are warned by the outcry of the debtor class, and that group of capitalists that lives in the neutral zone between active and passive investment is tempted to shift over to passive money lending unless and until the interest rate falls to a degree that offsets the fortuitous advantage accruing to creditors from rising prices. (Of course, the converse of all this would be the case if prices were rising.) In principle this process is competitive adjustment, on both sides, of expected gains and losses from price changes, resulting in a compensatory rate of contractual interest. The “true” interest rate translated into terms of goods (the commodity interest rate) would be no higher or lower than under a regime of stable general prices, if this process operated without lag or friction. But of course it does not so operate. At the best, the uncertainties of price changes make this process, though good as far as it goes, but little better than a gamble. Several independent statistical tests16 have shown that in part the compensation takes place, but only tardily, imperfectly, inequitably, unequally in the various branches of trade and in countless transactions. So far as it does occur, it can affect only newly made loans or old loans at the moment of renewal, and leaves the vast outstanding bulk of contracts in terms of dollars to be settled on the level of the new and ever-changing prices. In historical fact, no sooner has the downward trend of prices seemed to be established, and interest rates on newly made loans become more or less roughly adjusted to it, than general prices changed to an upward trend, and for years even the ignorant and unskillful among the active capitalists reaped unexpected profits on new loans still made at low interest rates. Then the whole “money lending” class, including as it does the many little lenders who are the equitable owners and beneficiaries of vast trust and insurance funds, endowments, and savings accounts, are the innocent losers.
2. Changing general prices in relation to particular prices and to industrial equipment.—Most of this doctrine is so generally accepted now that repetition is scarcely necessary. But there is another somewhat deeper-lying problem that calls for further attention from future students of prices. For is it not evident that during such a process of price change the whole scheme of relative prices would be disarranged, compared with what it would have been, or would be, under a regime of stable general prices? Where interest rates were compensated fully (or excessively) in relation to falling prices, there long-time investment in durable equipment would be “normally” large; while if interest rates are as yet compensated little or none, investment for the future must lag and even in renewing old loans many debtors would face ruin. Such things might raise some kinds of prices in the future by causing physical depreciation of existing wealth (lands, machinery, equipment) but reduce present prices in those industries by causing producers to continue to turn out goods under the pressure of need for ready funds.
The same uncertainty and chance that hangs over the whole process of borrowing from others to invest in particular ways, hangs over the process of employing one's own capital in active business. (We are concerned here only with the time-value and time-price aspects of these price relations.) There must be overinvestment at one place in durable goods, and underinvestment in others, compared with what would have been the case in a state of economy where general prices, as determined by the relation between the exchange mechanisms and the volume of exchanges, remained stable. While the contractual interest rate is out of accord with the profit rate, more or less, in different employments, both must be more or less out of accord with the “true” commodity interest rate, and at the same time the capitalizations of agents in various uses as well as the supplies and prices of various “ripe” goods must be greatly dislocated. A market rate of time-discount would in such periods cease to “prevail” with any precision, throughout any one of the structures of prices. The existing uncertainty as to price trends special and general, the inequality, the accidental gains and losses of enterprisers and investors, the resulting discouragements and prodigalities of individuals and large classes, extend even to the more fundamental psychological fact of time-preference. On the whole it would seem to have the effect of reducing abstinence and investment, though the factors must be varied and often conflicting.
3. Short-time general price changes, bank credits and discount rates.—In an historical chart of price index numbers, the long-time fluctuating curves, representing the greater tidal waves of general prices, may be as much as forty or fifty years from peak to peak; and they are broken up into a succession of uneven, shorter waves formerly thought to extend over eight to ten years but which some more recent studies indicate to run now nearer three or four years. In any case these briefer curves mark what are now called business cycles. Naturally the peaks and hollows of the long-time curves coincide with the high and low points respectively of certain of the shorter cycles, whereas between the greater peaks and hollows the shorter cycles may be pictured as superinscribed upon the long-time curves. At the few coincident points there might be a common cause, but the intervening divergences of the business cycle from the general trends certainly suggest the working of two somewhat independent causes.
Without committing ourselves to an inflexible theory, it seems now a good working hypothesis, in view of the known facts, to connect the long-time curves mainly with changes in the fundamental monetary conditions. Chiefly these relate to gold (and silver) production, together with the accompanying conditions as to the use of gold as the “standard” money and unit of prices in the world (if one likes, “the supply of and demand for” gold for use as the standard price unit in the monetary system). Since 1914 irredeemable paper money, crowding gold entirely out of circulation and becoming the sole fluctuating “standard,” has a part even more important than gold in the explanation of the price levels of particular countries, and has a very significant part in the explanation of the value of gold throughout the world. Similarly we may find the larger part of the cause of those briefer fluctuations that diverge from the long-time trends, in the changes occurring in that part of the exchange-mechanism consisting of credit agencies (in relation, of course, to the accompanying psychological conditions of hope, fear, confidence, expectations, whether based on calculation or resting merely in emotion, in the business community).
Now it is well recognized that modern developed banking and credit systems, by the use both of bank notes and of discount deposits, permit of large and rapid expansion of the dollar-expressed purchasing power, without substantial changes or any increase whatever at once and at the same time in the amount of standard money in the particular community. Any bank or group of banks starting at the close of a period of depression with a good percentage margin of reserves above the legal (or popularly reputed safe) minimum, can rapidly increase its earning assets and earned income by expanding credits on the basis of the same (or even less) standard (or legal) money in its vaults. This additional purchasing power in the hands of bank customers and borrowers may be assumed to have somewhat, if not just, the same immediate effect on prices as would a per capita increase of money in the community. As soon as any considerable number of enterprisers begin to share the confidence and belief that prosperous times are in prospect, the number of borrowers increases. The earlier an individual acts, the greater, probably, will be his eventual profit from the transaction, as funds borrowed at the lowest rate of interest are used to buy goods and equipment (and labor) at the lowest levels of prices, to be held and used while they are advancing to higher levels. There follows, therefore, on a smaller scale, and over a shorter period, the same kind of compensation between prices and interest rates as when prices advance because of the relative increase of standard money throughout the world. Wages rise at first more slowly and then more rapidly than prices of most products, until the wide profit margins shrink. Discount rates then rise with the growing demands of customers. The relation of various particular prices in the general system of prices undergoes rapidly various modifications, notably the relation between capital-valuations of durable and indirect goods with near-finished direct goods. Then every miscalculation, especially the overestimate of capital values (based on the combination of low discount rates on borrowed funds and high expected product-prices) reveals itself, the margin of security shrinks or vanishes, and many bank credits are “frozen.”
4. Public aspects of bank-credits in relation to stable prices.—As to the banks’ part in the movement of the business cycle, public and economic opinion in the past has thought it should be guided only by individual (or corporate) self-interest and the motives of private competitive profit, limited only by the minimum legal percentage of reserves. The banks have accordingly acted independently and indeed had to do so or lose the chance of profits for their stockholders. Midway in the upward price movement, long before its culmination, other banks (and the country as a whole) would benefit if some of the banks would cease expanding their credits. But as a private competitor the individual bank could not afford to do this. Only by acting in combination, and therefore monopolistically, could the banks together share the gains and losses of early restriction of credit while yet having an ample reserve percentage margin and legal lending power. And in this matter, as for long years in respect to transportation, the public could see nothing but good in competition, and has been very reluctant to admit the good in any measure of monopoly, even with governmental control. Popular fear of combination of moneyed institutions is still great.
In the Federal Reserve System, two monopolistic features were incorporated (doubtless without recognition of all their bearings): virtually centralized rediscount, and centralized note issues, both under control of the Federal Reserve Board. Very fortunately also (in contrast with the plan proposed by the National [Aldrich] Monetary Commission and almost unanimously preferred by the bankers of the country), the Federal Reserve System was given a far more public character and control, notably in not granting to the member banks all the profits as the Aldrich plan proposed. As a result of limiting to 6 per cent the dividends from the Federal Reserve Banks going to member banks the attitude of the whole banking community toward the sacrifice of earning assets (and therefore profits) of the Federal Reserve Bank since 1921 has been very different from what it otherwise would have been. It would be difficult to exaggerate the contrast. If only in the period between 1918 and 1920 the Federal Reserve policy had not become entangled and confused, through the mistaken zeal of the treasury department, with the policy of low interest rates on bonds, the country might have been spared a large part of the loss of that period of ridiculous price inflation.
There has been revealed of late the possibility of stabilizing in considerable measure the minor swings of prices (business cycles), by increasing the percentage and even the amount of reserves of standard money (impounding gold), at the sacrifice of possible bank profits, instead of passively letting the speculative demands of business precipitate a period of inflation. It is at last seen by a few, though not as yet generally by the public (nor confessed by the Federal Reserve Board), that the paramount use for public welfare that can be made of surplus assets is not to inflate credit and raise prices, but to keep prices as nearly level as possible. The index number, not the reserve percentage, might better be the compass by which to guide the discount policy of the great central, noncompetitive bank. But such action has pretty definite limits which are frequently ignored. It cannot long control or defy the larger swings correlated with standard money production and use, but only or mainly the minor savings caused by bank credit expansion. Ultimately the balance between gold and production costs in marginal mines must determine the valuation of the standard unit and the level of prices on the gold standard throughout the world.
5. Various types of loans and divergent interest rates.—We have spoken17 of the differences in interest rates existing side by side in different markets for loans. Such are seen in the higher interest rates long prevailing in the newer compared with the older states; in agricultural compared with urban districts; in the rates on bonds of long successful compared with doubtful enterprises; and in the varying rates for bank and mercantile credit, granted on poor, fair, or prime security. Such contemporaneous differences may be largely explained as due to risk (of losing principal and interest), to trouble of placing and collecting loans, etc., as seen from the standpoint of marginal lenders that are in a position to choose between the two forms of investment (vice versa as to borrowers). But evidently the true market net interest rate to non-marginal lenders within each territorial or other class of credit market must be genuinely different because of the prevailing competitive conditions (reflected in the particular system of prices in which they live and work). We are not now concerned primarily with these contemporaneous differences, connected either with geography or risk, but merely with time differences, the fluctuations over periods of time which occur in each of these kinds of loans, and more or less parallel with those in the other kinds of loans.
It has been a common observation that interest rates vary (in frequency and degree of change) somewhat directly with the shortness of the term of the loans.18 This means, of course, the more frequent necessity of renewals, and the greater proportion of all the loans of that type becoming subject of bargaining for renewal at any one time or state of the loan market. Thus something like 75 per cent of all outstanding loans now are in corporation and government bonds and real estate, rural and urban, aggregating perhaps ninety to one hundred billion dollars.19 On these the current rates for new loans and renewals are the most stable, following on the whole, most closely the general trend of long-time contractual (or nominal) and adjusted (commodity) interest rates. At the other extreme is the much smaller, quite elastic volume of fluid funds, consisting of call loans, commercial paper, bankers’ acceptances and Federal Reserve rediscounts, on the average perhaps five billion dollars (say 4 per cent of all loans). The current rates on these are most fluctuating (extremest on call loans); for these are the marginal loans, on the frontier, so to speak, of speculative investment, and made with reference to the more ephemeral changes of prices and opportunities for profit.
Midway between these two classes of loans stands the very considerable class of the more ordinary bank loans to commercial borrowers, together with the casual business credit by manufacturers and merchants to customers, totaling perhaps something less than thirty billion dollars, or something more than 20 per cent of all existing credits. The nominal rates on these change little, but the actual effective rate is very considerably modified by altering terms of collateral, of customers’ balances, refusal to renew, etc.
6. Underlying relationship of these various loan markets.—No doubt these three (and correspondingly their various subdivisions) are imperfectly connected markets, between which, because of legal restrictions, commitments, habits, lack of financial machinery, etc., there is a tardy transfer of funds by either borrowers or lenders. Moreover persistent average differentials in rates reflect risks and costs and trouble of placing and collecting loans. These markets to a large extent go their separate ways, and their time fluctuations of interest rates, be they large or small, manifest a considerable degree of independence. Long time real estate loans, continue to be made at about the same rates throughout periods when short time commercial loans are undergoing wide fluctuations. Likewise a large degree of independence must subsist at times in the several minor price systems, but fundamentally they are all connected and related to each other by the slow, though imperfect, transfer of marginally located funds until what may be called the “normal” differential is re-established. We might picture these various time-discount rates as the cars of a train hitched together by elastic couplings, all drawn along by the same engine. On a perfectly level track, moving at a perfectly even speed, they would keep the same relative positions and distances apart. But they would lag or catch up as the engine changed its speed and as, with varying grades of the track, gravity now retarded, now accelerated, their motion.
This view seems true of moderate or ordinary fluctuation of business; but some evidence indicates that in times of critical credit changes, the readily marketable, staple, long-time bonds (on the larger exchanges) may undergo notable swings of price (and reciprocally, their long-time yields).20 Viewed as mere dips in price, likely to be followed in a few years, at most, by recovery, the changes of capital value plus the regular interest make a total sacrifice by the seller (and gain to the buyer) possibly commensurate with, if they do not exceed, the larger fluctuations of the rates on call loans. Is not the explanation to be found in the fact that in the periods of financial catastrophe, a considerable number of even the best bonds become, so to speak, the last line of reserves to be thrown into the battle by speculators and bankers, the one asset convertible into ready funds? Therefore bonds are brought out of strong boxes by wealthy market operators and by financial institutions. The “supply” of funds available for their purchase is so small that the “marginal price” registered by sales is very low. But the actual sales represent a very small proportion of the outstanding amounts. These securities are mostly held by more passive investors whose valuation is much higher than that of the market, who would not think of selling at the momentary prices but who yet have little or no new funds by which to add to their holdings.
7. Different kinds of inflation as affecting prices and interest rates.—In the foregoing comparison between long and short time changes in price levels, we may have a clue to the unraveling of an old puzzle (at least a trial may be worth while); that is, the contradictory effects upon interest rates that seem to follow changes in prices at different times. To survey the problem briefly: before Hume it seems to have been generally thought that if money increased (and prices rose) the interest rate would fall and stay there. Hume declared (he seems to have been considering only the effects after the adjustment to a new level was complete) that prices and interest rates were independent, and the rate the same after the price level had changed that it was before. Then the theory of appreciation and interest, though not contradictory to Hume's view of the problem he was examining, showed that just during the period of gradual general price change in one direction, interest rates are affected, but precisely opposite to the popular notion. Interest rates then fall while money and prices decrease and rise while they increase. Not only has the old notion persisted popularly, but it has from time to time appeared in the more professional economic circle. Certain facts as to foreign trade movements, rates of foreign exchanges, bank reserves, note issues, increase of bank credits, commercial prices and ease of commercial credit, refuse stubbornly to chime with the simple sweeping proposition that rising prices always cause (or at least accompany) rising interest and discount rates. At times the outstanding and anomalous fact is a rapid expansion of trade and rise of prices continuing for months (in rare cases even for years) with little or no increase, possibly some reduction, in discount and interest rates in commercial circles.
We are tempted to find the explanation in the contrast between long and short time price changes, and in the lag of the interest rate, as the effect, behind rising prices as the cause. There may be some truth here, but the larger part promises to be found in the contrast between the two main sorts of price inflation in respect to their origin or cause, the one resulting from an increase in standard money, the other from an increase of bank credits. Ordinarily the standard money is gold or silver which, following changes in physical conditions of mining output, comes into circulation and is paid out by mine owners and workers gradually to buy goods without having been at any time in the hands particularly of a lending class. Likewise (whether or not we designate it as standard money), the irredeemable, political paper money issued from the printing press by needy governments, comes into circulation day by day directly as means of payment of current expenses, not assuming even momentarily the form of a loan fund. The first and immediate effect of money coming into circulation directly thus as means of payment is to raise prices of commodities, whatever effects, if any, it may later have indirectly on interest rates (notably the compensatory adjustment of contractual rates, already discussed).
Quite otherwise is it in the case of price inflation by means of bank credit; it matters not immediately whether the particular form which the new purchasing power takes is deposit and discount or bank note issues (credit currency). Any surplus percentage of reserves above legal requirements is to banks potential lending power, (e. g., 80 per cent in a central bank when the minimum legal requirement is 35 per cent, or 25 per cent for member banks when the minimum legal requirement has just been reduced to 13 per cent). Viewed as private enterprises merely, the banks have at such times not only the power, but the profit motive, to expand their loans, to convert this useless, ornamental surplus reserve into earning assets as fast and as far as possible. If the central bank management has misgivings about letting this occur, these may be overridden by Federal fiscal influences because of a predetermined policy to float governmental loans at low rates of interest.
8. Abnormal bank-loan expansion and commercial discount rates.—Now what happens to prices and interest rates under these conditions? Note that if prices are to be affected, it is to be through putting into the hands of business men the purchasing power represented by this huge latent loan fund, and it cannot be until that is done. Let it be assumed that, dollar for dollar, purchasing power of that kind will at least for a while have the same effects as an increase of standard circulating money in raising prices in commercial circles (immediately and directly, no matter how the later adjustments may differ).21 The latent inflating medium-of-exchange has no effect on prices until it becomes actual. It is first a huge loan fund concentrated in the hands of bankers and only after being loaned to bank customers does it increase the ratio of dollar purchasing power to goods for sale. The moment that it begins to be loaned, it tends to shift the balance of buyers and sellers of loan funds in the market for commercial credit, in favor of the borrowers, and to lower discount rates, or keep them low despite large borrowing. If the shift is sudden, if the potential amount of this loan fund is large, and if the movement, therefore, can be long continued (as between 1915–1920), it is easily understandable how bank (and other related commercial) discount rates would behave abnormally, and remain low while prices were steadily, and at last rapidly, advancing. Customers are tempted and, so to speak, bribed by the low discount rates, to borrow this new purchasing power, than as commodity prices rise, customers borrow more, and thus the vicious circle of loans raising prices which in turn increase loans continues so long as the discount rates remain level, or rise little. Only the approaching exhaustion of the surplus reserve percentages calls a halt.
Meanwhile, of course, there would have been the constant tendency not only for the discount rate, but for the whole price system in this banking and commercial world to get out of accord with the underlying forces of time-valuation, and with the previous (and in a sense more “normal”) scheme of capital-valuations and prices. Commercial loans pretty closely connected with banking are barely one-fourth of all loans, and for the other three-fourths (now around one hundred billion dollars) little of these banking funds would be available. Further, the capitalization of several hundred billion dollars of existing wealth would be only very imperfectly adjusted to this artificial and temporary cheapness of banking credit. The whole situation is such as to deceive the judgment and demoralize the business policies in every line of enterprise. Political pressure may prolong this movement even after the banks, if left to their own judgment and self-interest, would have curtailed credit and raised discount rates. It is probably the most outstanding case in which contractual interest and discount rates on commercial loans appear to find their cause and explanation for considerable periods outside of fundamental time-valuation factors, and out of accord with them, though in the end those factors govern. This situation has served to mislead some economists into the development of a general theory of interest based on bank credit.
9. Bank loan elasticity and the needs of business.—The foregoing presents the extreme case of the expansion and contraction of bank loans in relation to prices but in principle quite small changes in the loan policies of banks affecting the volume of commercial loans, discount rates, and percentages of reserves, are of the same nature.22 They cause and constitute inflation and deflation of the exchange medium and of commercial purchasing power, not originating in changes in the amount of standard money but in the elasticity of banking loan funds. This word “elasticity” has long been used in discussion of banking policy to designate a quality assumed to be highly and wholly desirable in bank note issues and in customers’ credits, but with only vague suggestions as to what is the need, standard, or means, with reference to which bank loans should expand and contract.
Rather, it may be more exact to say, the tacit assumption has been that the bank loan funds should be elastic in response to “the needs of business.” But “the needs of business” appears to be nothing but another name for changes in customers’ eagerness for loans; and this eagerness increases when prices are beginning or are expected to rise, and often continues to gather momentum while prices rise and until, because of vanishing reserve percentages (and other factors), the limit of this elasticity and also the limit of price increase, are in sight. In this situation, the most conservative business operations become intermixed with elements of investments speculation, motivated by the rise of prices and the hope of profit that will be made possible by a further rise. Throughout this process the much esteemed elasticity of bank funds is the very condition causing, or making possible, the rising prices which stimulate the so-called “needs of business.” Truly a vicious circle, to be broken only by crisis and collapse when bank loans reach a limit and prices fall. Then business failures, depreciation and losses written off, and the readjustment of capital values, bring the system of prices again into some semblance of self-consistency, and particularly bring the scheme of prices in active commercial markets which are most influenced by bank discount rates, into better accord with the larger, more inert volume of long-time loans and with the greater mass of the capital-valuation in owned wealth more rarely bought and sold.
Quite different would be the course of events if “the needs of business” were to be judged with reference, not to the speculative desires of individual traders (however “natural” and excusable) to expand operations because of and in expectation of rising prices, but were to be judged rather with reference to the “need” (or desirability) of a stable level of prices for the whole community. Then an official index number of general prices might better than customers’ clamor indicate the social-welfare need of expanding bank loans. Given a bank reserve-percentage rate in excess of legal requirements, bank inflation would truly fill a (public) need when prices were falling, but not when prices were rising. If this index were followed, that portion of the fluctuations of prices and of the business cycle due to the vicious circle of bank inflation to meet the so-called “needs of business,” would be minimized instead of caused or accentuated.
No doubt there must be a limit to the possible operation of such measures at either end of any legally enacted scale of reserve-percentage rates, and in any long-time movement of prices either up or down. It would seem that in principle the influence of such a policy of bank credit control upon price changes must be confined in the main within the short-time fluctuations of the business cycle, and must eventually in any country whose standard money is a precious metal, yield place to the major influences determining the world production and supply of the standard metal which influence the long-time swings.
We are not concerned here with the difficulties in the way of practical application of such a plan because of habits of thought, old usages, and administrative details; we are only indicating the nature of the problem and the possible contrasting policies. The whole subject has been viewed in the past in the light of the acquisitive, private-profit conception applied to banking, which, at least in part, defeats its own ends, as well as the ends of general welfare.
10. The Bank of England rediscount policy and the price level.—The nearest approach to a policy of deliberately manipulating bank loans in relation to national, rather than to individual, “needs” is the practice, originating with the Bank of England, of varying its rediscount rates. An adequate treatment of this highly technical subject would transcend our theme and our powers, but some aspects we may venture to glimpse. The purpose of raising the rediscount rate is quite definitely to protect the country's central reservoir of gold when a turn of foreign exchange rates threatens to deplete it by causing exportation. However, the purpose only one step removed (indeed bound together with main purpose as means to end) is to reduce commercial borrowing at home, thus reducing commercial purchasing power and thus checking the rise of, or deflating, English prices in commercial circles. Two results follow almost simultaneously: one, English commodity prices cease rising, or are slightly reduced relative to foreign prices, and thus English exports are stimulated and imports to England are discouraged; and two, the higher discount rates tempt back English assets held abroad as well as induce foreign bankers to extend or to increase finance bills and other credits to England. Both of these changes reduce, and may remove entirely for the time, the adverse foreign exchange rates calling for the net export of gold from England. The artificial raising of the rediscount rate really effects a lowering of commodity prices in England (both absolutely and relatively to those of other countries) and if it does not increase absolutely the amount of standard money in the country, it has at least the negative effect of preventing the decrease that otherwise would occur.
The plan really works. It is well to inquire carefully, however, whether this process shows more than a restricted, temporary, and superficial power to determine the level of prices or the form of the price system by changes artificially initiated in interest rates. In our view, in accord with the general theory of time-valuation, this process is nothing more than an anticipation of the bank-fund deflation that would otherwise be forced by the continued export of gold. Raising the rediscount rate merely puts springs under commercial prices to prevent their dropping later with a jolt. Moreover it is essentially a process of readjustment of relative price levels and of the stock of international standard money, in different geographical areas of the world, prices and money stocks in different national markets having become more or less out of alignment with world conditions. Fundamentally it is almost entirely unrelated to the problem of the long-time level of general prices either in the particular country or in the world at large.
11. Wicksell's startling doctrine of discount policy examined.—Such a role (however useful) is more modest than seems to be attributed by a good many economists here and abroad to the rediscount policy. The extremest view, that taken by the late Professor Knut Wicksell, has gained a wide hearing and some following loyal enough to claim “Wicksell as the originator of the modern theory of discount policy, which constitutes the chief advance of monetary theory since Ricardo.”23 Wicksell's thesis is this: If, other things remaining the same, the banks from any cause whatever together fix their interest rates somewhat below the normal level (assumed to be fixed by “marginal productivity”) all commodity prices will rise and continue to rise without any limit whatever; and vice versa. There is an incredible rigidity in the claim of lasting effects from a temporary change of bank discount rates: “When commodities have risen in price, a new level of prices has formed itself which in its turn will serve as basis for all calculations for the future and all contracts. Therefore, if the bank rate now goes up to its normal height, the level of prices will not go down....there being no forces in action which could press it down”24
Criticism of this proposition is difficult because of the elusive order and ambiguous nature of Wicksell's discussion. For at times he implies that the thesis has an important and useful application to real conditions and again confesses that “it is only an abstract statement,” and even that it is one of such nature that it can have no meaning or use in the financial world as it is. However, it can be shown that in either case the proposition is unsound—even taking it most “hypothetically.” A gross fallacy is contained in the very first phrase, “other things remaining the same,” for this does not have its legitimate meaning and purpose of limiting to one (a change of the bank rate) the new conditions or causal factors assumed to be different from the normal reality. The attentive reader soon discovers that Wicksell is assuming, or confessing, in order that the thesis shall hold at all, that before the bank rate could have the effect indicated, several other very important things must be quite different from what they are. First, all the banks of a country must act together, the individual bank, even a strong central one, would be powerless; then, this not being enough, all the banks of the world must act together, the single nation would be powerless; then, there must be “no circulation whatever of coins or notes,” or the attempt to maintain an artificially low discount rate would break down by the exhaustion of reserves; and it appears by this time that the thesis is meant to be defended only in the case of a complete regime of bank credit, with a zero reserve percentage.
Now in such a banking Utopia where bank credit were the only medium of exchange, if credit continued indefinitely to be extended to all applicants at an artificially (or arbitrarily) low rate of interest (not determined by the “normal” or usual forces), then there seems nothing to prevent constant bank credit inflation and a constant rise of prices, in turn creating a motive for more commercial loans, ad infinitum, just as in the case of Russian and German paper money inflation. Under such conditions the price of a shoe string or of a loaf of bread in terms of the nominal monetary unit may burst the mathematical tables. Either a regime of irredeemable paper money or a complete regime of bank credit without any money or any reserves, can be said to make possible a rise of general prices without assignable limits. But Wicksell's doctrine as a guide to practical banking policy is more to be shunned by stable money theorists than poisoned alcohol as a beverage. With the gold standard or some other definite standard of reserves, Wicksell's policy would be utterly unworkable, as he concedes quite casually. If he had presented his doctrine in a different order, introducing first the wildly unreal condition under which alone it could be imagined to operate, probably no one could have been deceived, not even its inventor, into thinking it could give any guidance in actual situations.
At times Wicksell's thought seems to be in a confused way that in the situation which he propounds prices rise indefinitely not because bank loans are continuously expanded, but because the discount is kept artificially low (while loans are restricted). But the superficiality of such a view is patent. It is simply unthinkable that all prices should rise continuously without continuous increase in the exchange mechanism either of standard money or of bank credit, or in the rapidity of turnover. If, however, discount rates were kept artificially low in Wicksell's imaginary banking regime, this would create a speculative “need” for loans (a demand for credit at a rate low compared with the time-discount rates pervading the general price system) and the amount of loans would steadily increase unless they were artificially restricted by rationing credit, or by favoritism, or by confining it to commercial purposes, or otherwise. Such a policy would affect unequally the prices and time-valuations involved in different kinds of goods. The notion that it would determine the time-discount rate embodied in the community's whole price system appears when viewed in the light of the capitalization theory, as foolish as “lifting one's self by one's bootstraps,” or as “the tail wagging the dog.” Bank loans are but a small proportion of all loans, and a much smaller proportion of the total wealth in private hands which is from time to time evaluated in terms of dollars. In all the durable sources of income are involved time-differences determining the shape in manifold ways of the whole system of relative contemporaneous prices. This system of prices itself rests upon, or grows out of, the totality of psychological time-valuation conditions. In the causal order of things the bank discount rates do not determine, they are in the long run determined by, these underlying conditions. With all their elements of artificiality, bank rates must, so far as competitive conditions prevail, tend to come into accord with the system of prices.25
12. Fundamental conditions and government loans in war time.—We have mainly assumed the general underlying conditions of time-valuation to remain stable in the larger community, and have directed our attention almost entirely to changes originating on the side of the mechanism of exchange (either standard money or credits, banking, or other). A symmetrical treatment would require an equally full examination of the problems originating in changes from the side of time-valuation, assuming no change originating on the side of money and credit. But a few suggestions must suffice us here. Recall that in all the phases of time-valuation, from the most subjective in the simplest individual economy to the most objective in developed commercial markets where a general price prevails for time (interest rate, capitalization rate, etc.) differences may co-exist as between individual groups and different fields of investment. There are more or less distinct fields of time-valuation and time prices, only imperfectly connected. It must happen also, that changes even in relative prices in particular markets (e. g., through a sudden demand for certain kinds of ripe, direct goods, compared with others) may react on time-valuations of durable wealth, often profoundly. Some indirect durable agents that make up the larger part of the wealth in one branch of industry (e. g., agriculture) may suddenly become much more or much less in demand relative to other indirect durable agents (e. g., mines or railroads or some kinds of machines). Now this, because of friction and imperfect substitution, may for a while throw the time-discount rates of different trading groups even more out of accord with each other than they were before. The individuals within these groups are readjusted (and readjust themselves) marginally to the need situation, and even those of greatest frugality and thrift now buy and sell goods at the prevailing prices in their group. Whether or not the implicit rate of time-discount will be changed depends alike on transfers from outside as well as on the latter strength and prevalence of individual frugality and providence within the group. Conversely, changes in time-preference originating within smaller groups must slowly change their respective marginal (market) rates of capitalization, etc., up or down, and these rates in turn, by substitution of investments, would gradually modify the time-valuation levels everywhere else.
The occasion or cause of change may be of such a general nature as to affect in large measure the real and actual time-valuations of all individuals and groups within a country, as notably on the outbreak of war. Then the immediate need of the equipment and munitions of war, not present in adequate quantities, must be met with an almost utter disregard of the future and of premium rate, and a large and costly equipment of indirect agents must be rapidly created which will be of little or no use when the war is ended. The effect is to raise quickly the whole general level of time-discounts and time-premiums. Countries with large saleable or pledgeable assets may for a while retard such a rise by selling claims, securities, credits, against others or against themselves, to wealthy neutral nations, as Great Britain and France sold securities to and borrowed from the United States between 1914 and 1919. But this at the same time raises the marginal time-discount rates in the lending countries. Or it may happen (as in the period of the Napoleonic wars and in 1917 on our entry into the world war) that most of the capitalistic world becomes involved, and the fundamental marginal time-valuations are everywhere raised. At such times there is an inevitable competitive bidding and rivalry between the borrowing needs of the government for war purposes and those of private business (both in nonessential industries and in those directly and indirectly producing war supplies). Because of the pressure of business opinion and its political bearings, the administration always is betrayed into the illogical and self-defeating policy of trying to borrow at low rates and at the same time trying (one aspect of a price-fixing policy) to keep commercial interest rates artificially low by encouraging bank inflation. The enforcing of artificially lower bank discount rates to buyers of national bonds by giving them preference as collateral (as in the case of Liberty and Victory bonds) combined with patriotic pressure and quota bond selling, leads to bond purchases largely or purely by bank loans rather than from thrift and saving, and to the extensive pledging by business borrowers of whatever equities in national bonds they have.
Here is a place where, as to the general commercial discount rate, the consistent and practical policy would be laissez faire, as a high interest rate would be one effective means of cutting off the demand for loans by the “nonessential” industries, and thereby would prevent diverting labor and materials from the war industries. Higher interest rates as costs in “essential” industries could be directly and frankly compensated by higher prices of those particular products, rather than by a course which inevitably raises the prices of all commodities. Another policy always used more or less in connection with price fixing (both of commodity prices and of loans) is that of rationing and, by tcreditshe high hand of a governmental agency, apportioning only to “war-essential” industries. Despite the danger of mistaken judgment and the occurrence of abuses, this is potentially both more logical and more effective than price fixing in securing the real end in view, viz., to use for war purposes, not for private enjoyment, the all too inadequate stocks of goods and human labor at hand. There are deductive grounds, never yet shown to be unsound, for condemning as fallacious and self-defeating the ever-repeated attempts of governments to float loans at less than those warranted by the general state of the price system. The attempt always involves tinkering with the exchange mechanism (either currency or bank credits and notes, usually both), with the result of price inflation. This ultimately imposes upon the nation as a whole burdens and losses incomparably greater than the petty saving in interest charges on the public debt for a few years. To depress interest rates on public loans artificially and by governmental pressure to manipulate bank discount rates is to treat superficial symptoms while ignoring underlying conditions. Just so far as present purchasing power in greater amounts and at artificially depressed interest rates is, in wartime, put into the hands of those who clamor for “business as usual,” so far is reduced and retarded the most needed shift of goods from present private use to capital equipment and to present goods for war purposes, paid for by public loans. Prices become inflated, war costs are increased, and the people really pay usuriously both as taxpayers and as the victims of the inevitable financial crisis.
13. Interest theory and after-war recovery.—Conditions in which time-valuations change in an opposite direction from that taken in wartime, occur at the close of a great war. These cannot be adequately discussed within the limits of this paper; but certainly recent events (1918–1926) as well as a broader theory of time-valuation, unite to discredit the belief of J. S. Mill, that a country devastated in time of war and from which “nearly all the movable wealth existing in it” has been carried away, will “by the mere continuance of that ordinary amount of exertion which they are accustomed to employ in their occupations....in a few years” acquire “collectively as great wealth” as before.26 The root of Mill's error (in fact and in theory) more clearly appears in his affiliated discussion of “government loans for war purposes.” The amount borrowed (and spent for goods destroyed in war uses) “was abstracted by the lender from a productive employment” concedes Mill, and “the capital, therefore, of the country, is this year diminished by so much.” But (here begins the error) he declares: “The loan cannot27 have been taken from that portion of the capital (concrete goods) of the country which consists of tools, machinery, and buildings. It must have been wholly drawn from the portion employed in paying laborers.... But....there is no reason that their labor should produce less in the next year than in the year before.” This is all wrong; there is no such “cannot have been,” no such “must,” and there is abundant “reason” to the contrary. The whole thought is tainted with the labor theory of value. For in truth, from the moment that war begins to raise time-discounts, and progressively until peace returns, physical depreciation proceeds, the normal peace time repairs, replacements, and improvements of many durable agents are curtailed, especially those in the non-essential industries, normal building operations and additions to industrial equipment are suspended, while current production is applied not only to procuring the materials to be immediately consumed in the war, but even more to building the elaborate equipment of indirect agents which are to become nearly worthless the moment the war is ended. This would be true even in a victorious uninvaded country. In a conquered land, from which “nearly all the movable wealth” had been carried away, the case would be far worse. Returning to the arts of peace, the population even with herioc self-denial and efforts, may for years be unable to obtain again the pre-war stream of commodity income. The peasant is lacking in beasts of burden and agricultural equipment; the artisan is forced to return to simpler tools and machinery; both are lacking in stocks of raw material; while highways, bridges, and other means of transport are in ruins. The mass of the population, even to exist, is forced to adjust itself to a lower standard of living, a condition which makes peculiarly burdensome any effective “abstinence” to create loanable funds and additions to the durable wealth directed toward future needs. These evils, it need hardly be said, are usually greatly aggravated by political disorders and by the monetary demoralization resulting from both paper money and bank credit inflation. In this situation no doubt large loan funds (to be used mainly to buy imported industrial equipment) could in many cases, if wisely chosen, be “profitably” borrowed from more prosperous nations. That is to say, the price system is such in the devastated country, that all sorts of goods with future uses are so priced that investors can “profit” (individually) by contracting to pay abroad high interest rates to buy, build, and increase the number of such long-time, durable bearers of future uses. The greatest difficulty is that borrowers lack good enough security and the moral factor of credit to obtain, even at high interest rates, the loans needed either for public or private uses.
14. Conclusion.—The foregoing are but illustrations of the practical questions, the answers to which presuppose and imply some general theory of interest. They vary widely in scope and nature as do also the answers that have been offered. There is but little evidence in the large volume of recent discussion of price movement and the business cycle that the implicit question of interest has been explicitly considered as an integral part of the price system. Interest theory receives attention only incidental to or aside from the price system. An interest theory is advanced which does not originally apply to all kinds of prices. Interest (so far as attributed to impersonal forces) is explained by an ambiguous technical “productivity” of a restricted group of “artificial” agents, the rate so determined being then thought to be applied in the capitalization of other agents; or it is explained as fixed in the realm of bank loan credit, and then somehow to permeate all other loans and prices. These are piecemeal interest theories which fail to find general cause for interest inherent in the relation of all kinds of goods to man's nature and needs. They are what Böhm-Bawerk called fructification theories, rightly condemned by him in principle,28 as an attempt to stretch a partial explanation so as to make it appear to be a complete one. Such an attempt is an almost infallible sign that the explanation is not only incomplete but unsound. Not discovering the generally valid ground of explanation, it has chosen an invalid—not even partially valid—ground.
It may be too much to attribute to the lack of sound interest theory alone all the inharmonious and discordant ideas and policies regarding interest rates and prices that have lately stalked abroad. Human thought has a remarkable capacity to go wrong at many points and in many ways. But the thesis of this paper is that a unified time-valuation theory makes it clear that time-discounts and premiums enter into the formation of all prices both of direct and of indirect goods, and are an inseparable part of even the earliest price systems; that the price system is logically and chronologically antecedent to all forms of contractual interest, which is merely derivative from the capitalization process; that finally this view gives a clear, consistent criterion by which to test various notions with respect to price changes and policies with respect to the fixing of interest and discount rates by government or banks, and it shows the limits of their possible application. Our object will have been attained if theoretical discussion shall have been aroused, statistical inquiry stimulated, and in the end, practical efforts to stabilize prices helped to move along right lines.
[1.]Capital und Capitalzins, Innsbruck, 1884. The second edition, Innsbruck, 1900, is reviewed by F. A. F. in the Journal of Political Economy, January, 1902. The English translation of the first edition, cited in this article, bears the title Capital and Interest.
[2.]Capital and Interest, preface, p. xix, referring to text pp. 257–259.
[3.]Positive Theory of Capital, p. 237.
[4.]The last five words, if taken in a literal and objective sense, are open to criticism. See my discussion in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. xv. p. 8 [see above, p. 38].
[5.]Positive Theory, p. 237.
[6.]Ibid., p. 260. The other reasons given are: (1) differences in want and provision in present and future (Positive Theory, p. 249); and (2) underestimate of the future (Positive Theory, p. 253).
[7.]Positive Theory, p. 22.
[8.]Ibid., p. 264.
[9.]Einige strittige Fragen der Capitalstheorie, Wien u. Leipzig, 1900. Published first as three articles in the Zeitschrift für volkswirtschaft, Sozialpolitik, und Verwaltung, in 1899. Reviewed by F. A. F. in the Political Science Quarterly, vol. xvii. pp. 169–173, March, 1902.
[10.]The first explanation Böhm-Bawerk offers is an appeal to practical examples. It can easily be shown that he wavers greatly in his thought and statement of the degree of validity in the proposition. See, e.g., Positive Theory, pp. 20, 22, 82, 84, 260; Einige strittige Fragen, pp. 39, 40. The second reason given to account for the greater productiveness of roundabout methods is that thereby natural forces are enlisted in the service of man. Positive Theory, pp. 12–33; Einige strittige Fragen, p. 10. This second reason is open to the criticism to be given in discussing the third (see below, p. 177); and the two will stand or fall together.
[11.]Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. xv. pp. 1–45.
[12.]These words occur in Einige strittige Fragen, p. 11.
[13.]Einige strittige Fragen, p. 11: “Die Arbeit desto productiver ist, mit je mehr capitalistischen Hilfsmitteln sie ausgerüstet ist.”
[14.]This modifying phrase is needed, as there are several different conceptions of capital used by Böhm-Bawerk. See “Recent Discussion of the Capital Concept,” Quarterly journal of Economics, vol. xv. pp. 8,40.
[15.]Einige strittige Fragen, p. 11: “Was ist denn eigentlich das ‘Capital’? Es ist, wie es mit einer zwar nicht ganz schulgerechten aber wenigstens im Groben recht zutreffenden Definition bezeichnet zu werden pflegt, ‘vorgethane Arbeit.’” The note reads: “Genauer ist es zu sagen, aufgespeicherte, vorgeschossene Productivkraft, die nicht nur Arbeit, sondern auch wertvolle Naturkraft oder Bodennutzung sein kann.”
[16.]Einige strittige Fragen, p. 12.
[17.]The “production period” with Böhm-Bawerk means not the entire time elapsing from the first labor applied to goods, but the average time from the embarking of labor in products until its emergence as enjoyable goods, the whole produced value being thought of as ultimately consumed. This is carefully restated by the author in Einige strittige Fragen, pp. 4, 5. Misunderstanding on this point has led to most of the criticisms to which Böhm-Bawerk has replied. We must recognize also that Böhm-Bawerk uses the conception of the production period as that of the average for all industry.
[18.]Einige strittige Fragen, p. 11.
[19.]It may seem that this is not true of Böhm-Bawerk's concept of capital, as he has defined it in terms of concrete things and not according to its money expression. Yet as in this very passage he has employed the money expression, and as the discussion of “units” of capital is impossible without violating his definition, it is permissible to cite this against him.
[20.]Einige strittige Fragen, note, p. 12.
[21.]One can imagine the reply that the greater proportion of interest is the result, and expresses the lengthening of the period of production; but this fails to explain profits and monopoly gain. It is shifting entirely the test by which the length of a period is to be measured; for, if only one-sixth of the results of the year's labor is at any time bound up in the form of capital, evidently five-sixths of it are applied to current uses, are on an average consumed at once, and only two months elapse on an average from the moment a unit of labor is applied until it emerges as product. And, finally, it brings us back to the difficulty that the amount of capital must, if it includes an element of interest, vary according to the rate of interest: it must involve already the rate of interest which it is the problem to explain.
[22.]Einige strittige Fragen, p. 11 and note.
[23.]Positive Theory, pp. 262, 266, 267, 269.
[24.]See above, p. 189 note 17.
[25.]Positive Theory, p. 260.
[26.]Ibid., p. 262.
[27.]Ibid., p. 264.
[28.]Positive Theory, p. 268.
[29.]Capital and Interest, p. 428.
[30.]Given above, p. 189 note 6.
[31.]Positive Theory, p. 227, note.
[32.]The reader will recall the distinction between the action of the different causes, the first two being called cumulative, the second alternative. See Positive Theory, pp. 273–277.
[33.]See Capital and Interest, e.g., pp. 111–119, 180, 181, and 183, quoted below.
[34.]See Capital and Interest, e.g., pp. 116–118.
[35.]Capital and Interest, p. 138.
[36.]Positive Theory, p. 263.
[37.]Ibid., p. 264.
[38.]After this article was in print the new edition of the Positive Theory came to hand. It proves, however, to be a verbatim reprint, not a revision of the first edition, the author's official duties having prevented his undertaking its rewriting at this time. This will be a source of much regret to economic students, although recent magazine articles by the author make it clear that he has in no essential way modified the concepts or theories presented in the first edition.
[39.]E.g., Positive Theory, pp. 352–357.
[1.]The next decade of economic theory, Publ. of Amer. Econ. Asso., 3d ser., vol. 2, no. I, p. 236–246 (read Dec. 29, 1900). Points out the relative and temporary nature of the old concepts of rent and of capital, and suggests the general direction that may be taken in their restatement [see above, pp. 74–83].
[2.]The passing of the old rent concept, Quar. Jour. Econ., vol. 15, pp. 416–455 (May, 1901). A detailed criticism, purely negative, of Marshall's doctrine of quasi-rent, as typical of the prevailing unsettled condition of thought on this subject [see pp. 318–354].
[3.]Recent discussion of the capital concept, Quar. Jour. Econ., vol. 15, pp. 1–45 (Nov., 1900). A review of the contributions of Clark, Irving Fisher and Böhm-Bawerk to this subject, criticizing especially the last named in his distinction between social and individual capital, between consumption and production goods, between natural and produced agents; concluding with a positive statement of a concept of capital, as distinguished from wealth [see above, pp. 33–73].
[4.]The “roundabout process” in the interest theory, Quar. Jour. Econ., vol. 17, pp. 163–180 (Nov. 1902). A criticism of Böhm-Bawerk's “Positive theory,” showing that his retention of a defective capital concept is the cause of his retaining (inconsistently) a productivity theory of interest; concluding with a suggestion of the true relation of productivity to a theory of interest. The present paper unites, and develops somewhat, the various arguments in this series of articles [see above, pp. 172–191].
[5.]This thought was stated with a somewhat different emphasis in “The next decade of economic theory,” pp. 80–81.
[6.]Still other distinctions find partial recognition in current economics. See “The passing of the old rent concept,” 325–332, for a discussion of space extension and of time in this connection.
[7.]The ablest attempt to face this difficulty formally, that of Böhm-Bawerk, in his “Positive theory,” pp. 55–56, is quite unsuccessful. A criticism of his argument is given in “Recent discussion of the capital concept,” pp. 57–65.
[8.]This idea as held by Böhm-Bawerk is more fully criticized in “Recent discussion of the capital concept,” p. 63.
[9.]The “land concept of rent” in the somewhat complex form as held by Marshall, is criticized in “The passing of the old rent concept,” pp. 320–325.
[10.]“The law of the three rents,” article in Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 5, p. 263; restated in his “Economics of distribution,” 1900. Likewise in vol. 5, p. 289, appeared John B. Clark's remarkable paper on “Distribution as determined by a law of rent.”
[11.]The change in the rent concept is reviewed in “The next decade of economic theory,” pp. 78–79.
[12.]“The law of the three rents,” pp. 287–8.
[13.]Value and distribution, 1899.
[14.]The mistaken origin of the no-cost concept is shown in “The passing of the old rent concept,” especially pp. 345–350.
[15.]This solution was implied in the capital concept presented in “Recent discussion of the capital concept,” pp. 65–70.
[16.]This conception was briefly suggested in concluding the criticism of Böhm-Bawerk: “The ‘roundabout process’ in the interest theory,” pp. 185–188.
[17.]The broader conception of interest was presented in “Recent discussion of the capital concept,” pp. 33–73, especially pp. 49–57.
[18.]Brevity compels me to confide these closing comments to the criticisms adverse to the opening paper.
[19.]Hollander, “Discussion, A.E.A.” Proceedings 5 (February 1904): 204.
[20.]See above, pp. 197–198.
[21.]See Hollander, pp. 204, 205.
[22.]See Carver “Discussion, A.E.A.” Proceedings 5 (February 1904): 205.
[23.]See above, p. 205.
[24.]See Hollander, passage beginning “No entrepreneur” and ending “only in inferior efficiency,” p. 208.
[25.]See Carver, pp. 200–201.
[26.]See Daniels, p. 226. Dr. Whitaker's remarks to the same effect unfortunately were not obtainable for this report.
[27.]This applies also in answer to the remarks of Professor Ely.
[28.]Marshall, Principles of economics, 4th edition, p. 224. He does not draw the conclusion, however, that is here suggested as necessary.
[29.]The interesting facts cited by Professor LeRossignol, p. 224, seem to me to illustrate, not to disprove, the view I have taken, which is far from a denial of the “surplus return” to the investor in land, or in other wealth, in a new country.
[30.]See Taylor, “Discussion, A.E.A.” Proceedings 5 (February 1904): 221.
[31.]See Taylor, p. 218
[32.]See Taylor, p. 220.
[33.]MacFarlane, “Discussion, A.E.A.” Proceedings 5 (February 1904): 215.
[34.]As is well known to students of economic theory Dr. MacFarlane has in his work “Value and distribution,” obliterated the distinctions between the objective classes of agents yielding rents, and other incomes, more fully than has any other writer.
[35.]See MacFarlane, pp. 213–14.
[36.]See Professor Gidding's reply, “Discussion, A.E.A.” Proceedings 5 (February 1904): 226.
[37.]See MacFarlane, p. 212.
[38.]See Carver, pp. 203–4.
[39.]See MacFarlane, p. 214.
[40.]See Taylor, p. 219.
[41.]Hollander, p. 209.
[42.]Daniels, Giddings, Marburg, Whitaker. Unfortunately no report was secured of Mr. Marburg's brief and pointed remarks or of Dr. Whitaker's subtle discussion. Professor Keasbey's attitude toward the question is favorable to the opening paper as against its critics, but his point of view is original, and his treatment in several ways not consistent with the views I have expressed.
[1.]American Economic Review, Dec., 1912, H. R. Seager, (critique of) “The Impatience Theory of Interest”; Sept., 1913, Irving Fisher (reply), and H. R. Seager (comment) “The Impatience Theory of Interest.”
[2.]To prevent misunderstanding, let us say that Böhm-Bawerk is here classed among those holding to the old theory, for his “round-about process” explanation is technological, though united with strong psychological features in the explanation of consumption loans.
[3.]This somewhat unusual word is here employed in the sense of physically productive, a technological interest theory being one which finds the explanation of the rate of interest in the actual, practical performances, or uses, of agents in producing other goods.
[4.]American Economic Review, Sept., 1913, p. 610.
[5.]The Rate of Interest, 1907, p. 12.
[6.]Ibid., p. 15.
[7.]Ibid., p. 22.
[8.]Ibid., p. 28.
[9.]The Impatience Theory of Interest,” Scientia, vol. IX, 1911, pp. 383, 384, 386.
[10.]American Economic Review, Sept., 1913, p. 610.
[11.]Ibid., p. 610.
[12.]Ibid., p. 611.
[13.]My italics throughout.
[14.]Ibid., p. 611.
[15.]Ibid., p. 617.
[16.]The Rate of Interest, p. 251.
[17.]American Economic Review, Sept., 1913, p. 612.
[19.]Ibid., p. 617.
[21.]Ibid., p. 612.
[22.]“Recent Discussion of the Capital Concept,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. XV (Nov., 1900), p. 45.
[23.]Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Meeting, Dec., 1900, “The Next Decade of Economic Theory,” Publications of the American Economic Association, 3d series, vol. 2, pp. 240, 246.
[24.]“Einige Strittige Fragen der Capitalstheorie,” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 17 (Mar., 1902), p. 173.
[25.]Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 17 (Nov., 1902), p. 179.
[26.]The reader will observe that the term rent was there used in the more general sense of the income from the use, or the usance, of agents, not merely in the sense of contractual rent. This particular terminology which was due to the influence of J. B. Clark, has since been modified, not to weaken but to strengthen, the conception involved.
[27.]Publications of the American Economic Association, 3d series, vol. V, in a paper on “The Relations between Rent and Interest,” p. 197.
[28.]Believing this conception to be logically involved in much of Böhm-Bawerk's argument in his critical volume, “Capital and Interest,” I credited him with “the fertile suggestion” (see above, p. 231, quotation from the article, “The Roundabout Process”). But he has not accepted this interpretation; indeed, this would invalidate the greater part of what is distinctive in his positive theory of the roundabout process, to which he adheres without change in the latest edition, 1912.
[29.]Fisher prefers to call the one explicit and the other implicit interest. However, throughout his book he uses the phrase “the rate of interest” almost if not exclusively for contract interest, and other terms, such as rate of preference, time-preference, etc., when implicit interest is meant.
[30.]Other expressions, to designate various aspects of the same problem, used in my Principles of Economics (1904), were “choice between different values,” p. 104; “difference in want-gratifying power,” p. 144; “time-difference”; “time-discount”; “the rate of time-discount,” p. 145; “estimate of time value,” p. 145; “a choice between present enjoyment and future provision,” p. 146; “a premium rate on present goods,” p. 146; “the exchange in time-valuation,” p. 146; “preference of the future over the present,” p. 158; “the preference of present over future,” p. 159.
[31.]When, however, attention is given to the details in the modern loan market following the action of this man or that, or studying a temporary situation such as a sudden demand for loans on the occasion of a war or in a financial panic, we break into the explanation at a different point. The change in the immediate status of the loan market is reflected in widening circles and for a time affects the capitalization of much of the wealth in the economy (of the nation or of the world). This and many other needed interpretations are briefly indicated in my elementary text. It is fundamental to the conception of the capitalization theory, however, that these impulses from the money market are not, as they superficially appear, primary or causal in a theory of interest, in the same sense as is the preference in time for enjoyable goods and the resulting level of capitalization. See especially chs. 17–19, in my Principles of Economics, 1904.
[32.]The Rate of Interest, p. 88.
[33.]Ibid., p. 88.
[34.]Ibid., p. 91.
[35.]Elementary Principles, 1912, p. 229.
[36.]Ibid., p. 336.
[37.]The Rate of Interest, p. 117.
[38.]American Economic Review, Dec., 1912, pp. 836–837.
[39.]My purpose, in large part, in calling attention to my mode of approach to the interest problem as outlined above, is to show that the psychological theory, in its original form, is not open to the criticism which Seager forcibly directs against Fisher, “that he dissociates his discussion completely from any account of the production of wealth.” To be sure, Fisher's reply begins with a categorical denial, “I did not dissociate” (American Economic Review, Sept. 1913), but he immediately admits that in his “first approximation” the income streams were “temporarily assumed.” And while in his larger theoretical book, he believes that “this assumption gives place to the more complicated conditions of the actual world,” when he comes to the second and third approximations, he confesses that those complications were, “for the most part, omitted (as too difficult and controversial)” from the elementary book. Seager's comment (American Economic Review, Sept., 1913, p. 618) is pertinent: “A methodology that causes an author to drop out an essential link when he tries to restate his theory in elementary form seems to me to be almost self-condemned.” At this point may be recalled my own criticism of Fisher's treatment of capital in his Capital and Income. Reviewing this in the Journal of Political Economy, March, 1907, vol. 15, p. 147, I spoke of a “certain isolation in Fisher's capital theory. He began the analysis and reconstruction of the capital concept as if it were a task apart from the theory of distribution as a whole....The capital theory presented has therefore a certain character of intellectual aloofness that leaves it out of touch with the larger theory of distribution, of which it should be but one part.” The same criticism applies in general to The Rate of Interest, published a year later.
[40.]Seager, American Economic Review, Dec., 1912, p. 835.
[41.]The Rate of Interest, p. 184.
[42.]“The Impatience Theory of Interest,” Scientia, vol. IX, p. 387.
[43.]Elementary Principles, p. 371.
[44.]American Economic Review, Dec. 1912, pp. 841–842.
[45.]Fisher has followed Böhm-Bawerk in presenting objections to the productivity theory in terms that logically invalidate every productivity theory and, apparently, is again following his example in withdrawing the objections insofar as they apply to any but the naive theories. (See above, pp. 227–228.)
[46.]American Economic Review, Sept., 1913, p. 617.
[47.]Ibid., Dec., 1912, p. 849.
[48.]Ibid., p. 845.
[49.]Ibid., p. 848.
[50.]Ibid., pp. 847–848.
[51.]The Principles of Economics, 1904, p. 127.
[52.]American Economic Review, Dec, 1912.
[53.]American Economic Review, p. 842.
[54.]Ibid., pp. 842–843.
[55.]See above, pp. 235–236, 240–241.
[56.]American Economic Review, Dec., 1912, p. 848.
[57.]Ibid., p. 844.
[58.]American Economic Review, Dec., 1912, p. 847.
[59.]On this Fisher has taken a position in accordance with the capitalization theory. See American Economic Review, Sept., 1913, p. 614.
[60.]Cited above, p. 252, n. 1.
[61.]Quarterly Journal of Economics, Aug., 1913, p. 634. Here impatience and productivity are said to be coordinate determinants, though productivity may be the more important; and again, page 645, impatience is said “to enter into the chain of cause and effect” in a certain connection “as effect rather than cause”; and, finally, page 650, impatience “is also, to some extent, a joint consequence, with interest, of the other cause, the superiority of indirect production.”
[62.]Quarterly Journal of Economics, Aug., 1913, p. 644.
[63.]Ibid., p. 638.
[64.]Quarterly Journal of Economics, Aug., 1913, p. 639.
[65.]Ibid., p. 640.
[66.]Ibid., p. 637.
[67.]Ibid., p. 644.
[68.]Professor V. G. Simkhovitch's illuminating article on “Hay and History,” in the Political Science Quarterly, Sept., 1913, gives new evidence of the effect upon agricultural industry of enlarging man's power over the production of fertile and arable qualities in land.
[69.]A different conception, apparently a unique variation of the enterpriser- productivity theory, is the dynamic theory of Professor Schumpeter, as presented in his Theorie der Wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung, 1912, and reviewed at length by Böhm-Bawerk in the Zeitschrift für Volkswirtschaft, 1913.
[1.]Capital and Interest, English translation, p. 47.
[2.]E.g., he speaks of political economy, “from Say's time to the present,” as having been “captivated by the deceptive symmetry that exists between the three great factors of production—nature, labour, capital.” Positive Theory, p. 1.
[3.]Many examples of this could be cited. Even Irving Fisher lapses into this thought at times; e.g., The Rate of Interest, p. 91; and Elementary Principles, pp. 229 and 336.
[4.]A term introduced by the writer in Principles of Economics, 1904.
[5.]See above, sec. 4.
[6.]Positive Theory, pp. 348–9.
[7.]Capital and Its Earnings, 1888.
[8.]Explicitly, first, it seems in his Principles, 3d ed., 1895, pp. 142 and 664, cited by Böhm-Bawerk in preface to his second edition of his Geschichte, etc.
[9.]History of Theories of Production and Distribution, 1894.
[10.]See “Interest Theories, Old and New,” American Economic Review, vol. 4, March, 1914 [see above, pp. 226–255].
[11.]See the writer's paper on “Value and the Larger Economics,” Journal of Pol. Econ., 1923, pp. 587, 790.
[12.]Some of these are indicated in “Interest Theories, Old and New,” op. cit.
[13.]Positive Theory, p. 237. Of course this proposition is not itself a theory of interest, but merely the statement of a broad empirical fact whose explanation constitutes “the interest problem.” The truth is that Böhm-Bawerk does not make and keep this “the kernel and center” of his “positive theory,” for to do so would seem to require a consistent “agio” or time-preference theory such as he promised to give. But instead, as he went on, he made technical productivity of capital (in the roundabout process) more and more the kernel and center of his explanation, “the third reason why present goods are, as a rule, worth more than future.” Positive Theory, p. 260. This becomes in his view “the principal form assumed by the interest problem.” Ibid., p. 299. It is the circumstance giving “the phenomenon of the higher valuations of present goods an almost universal validity” whereas on the other merely psychological grounds “an overwhelming majority (of men) would have no preference for present goods.” Ibid., 277. This prevailing preference becomes in his explanation almost entirely the result of technical productivity, presented as the chief cause of this premium on present goods (and therefore of interest) independent of any of the two already mentioned. Ibid., p. 270.
[14.]Ibid., e.g., pp. 250, 251, 297. The frequency of these exceptions seems to be greatly minimized in Böhm-Bawerk's view by his practice, in nearly every case where he seeks to test the matter by an example, of shifting from particular goods to a sum of money. E.g., ibid., pp. 250 ff., 255, 256, 276, et passim. It can happen much more rarely that a present dollar would be worth less than a future dollar, in a modern community with a developed financial system, with borrowing, saving accounts, etc.; in fact, it could occur only in periods of catastrophic changes in general prices, or because of some peculiar personal choice of particular goods that are undergoing great changes in their relative prices. This adjustment of particular prices to the general time-premium on money is in part touched on below.
[15.]Principles, 1st. ed., p. 627.
[16.]Prof. Waldo F. Mitchell alone, it seems, claims now to find in the statistical data no evidence of such a result.
[17.]Part II, Sec. 8.
[18.]See Mr. Carl Snyder's discussion and formulation in American Economic Review, December, 1925, pp. 684–699, esp. p. 690.
[19.]Approximately Snyder's estimates, op. cit.
[20.]See some data given by Waldo F. Mitchell, in American Economic Review, June, 1926, p. 216.
[21.]As shown by the statistical studies of Holbrook Working, Review of Economic Statistics, July, 1926, p. 120, “Bank Deposits as a Forecaster of the General Wholesale Price Level”; earlier article in Quar. Jour. Econ., Feb., 1923.
[22.]See Holbrook Working, op. cit., for striking statistical confirmation of the principle.
[23.]See Economic Journal, vol. 36, p. 503 (and especially p. 507) Sept., 1926, obituary notice of Knut Wicksell by Prof. B. Ohlin; Economic Journal, vol. 17, p. 213, “The Influence of the Rate of Interest on Prices,” paper read by Prof. Wicksell before the economic section of the British Association; Jahrbucher, 1897, p. 228, “Der Bankzins als Regulator der Warenpreise,” by K. Wicksell.
[24.]Econ. Jour., op. cit., p. 216.
[25.]As shown above in sections 5 and 6.
[26.]Book 1, Chapter V. Section VII.
[28.]See above, part I, sec. 4.