Innovation and the Failure of the Great Man Theory

We tend to think about innovation as inventions and particularly about the inventors associated with them: Newton, Edison, Jobs, Archimedes, Watt, Arkwright.  This Great Man Theory of incredible technical innovation is mostly implicitly held by quite a few of us, celebrating these great men and their deeds.

Matt Ridley, the author of The Rational Optimist and The Evolution of Everything among other credentials, has spent a lot of time and effort in recent years arguing against this theory. In his recent Hayek Lecture to the British Institute of Economic Affairs he convincingly outlines his case: so many independent innovations take place roughly at the same time by different people. The Great Man Theory leads us to believe that  hadn’t it been for Edison, we’ll all be in the dark and humanity deprived ofall the benefits that came with the innovation.

Not so. There were a great number of contemporary inventors who came upon versions of the lightbulb (Ridley cites 21 or 23 or them, depending on whom you include) around the same time as Edison. The story can be repeated for most other great inventions we know of: laws of thermodynamics, calculus, most metals, typewriting machines, jet engines, the ATM, Oxygen. Indeed, the phenomenon is so common that it has its own term: simultaneous invention.

It seems, in complete contrast to the Great Man Theory, that history provided a certain problem, a sufficient number of people working on solving it at a certain time, and eventually similar inventions taking place around the same time. The process is, Ridley concludes, “gradual, incremental, collective yet inescapable inevitable […] it was bound to happen when it did”.

Interestingly enough for those of us schooled and fascinated by spontaneous orders and bottom-up social and economic phenomena, the Great Man Theory is remarkably similar to other beliefs about the world. It is a symptom of the same reasoned short-comings that makes us humans susceptible to believing in zero-sum thinking, top-down organizing and “design-implies-a-designer”. Instead of grasping the deep insights of gains from trade, spontaneous order or evolution, we are tempted by the militaristically directed organizations that we believe we understand rather than the emergent order of many independently acting individuals’ trials and errors.

Precisely this bias makes us susceptible to the mistake Mariana Mazzucato has become famous for wholeheartedly embracing: the idea that, whatever the innovation, government probably did it. That government innovation is productive – or at least more productive than is commonly presumed – and indeed societies can greatly benefit from ramping up government R&D spending. Nevermind incentives, track records or statistical robustness.

Indeed, what Ridley points to is precisely that valuable and life-changing innovation cannot be directed. Admittedly, some innovation does occur in labs, but only a vanishingly small part. Mazzucato and other top-downers could have benefited greatly from listening to Ridley (or reading his book The Rational Optimist; or reading Demsetz’ devastating 1969 article ‘Information and Efficiency’).

Coming full circle and espousing the Hayekian insights, Ridley notes that the price is everything. Specifically the reduction in prices is what matters for innovations to be spread and adopted rather than the ideas themselves. Very little happens in terms of adoption and transmission until prices start to fall dramatically (hint, hint, Bitcoin… or nuclear energy, or renewable energy…). Like the printing press and the steam engine, interesting things start to happen when prices fall – not because an innovation is particularly cool in some subsection of society.

Innovation is a deeply decentralized yet deeply collective process. We face similar challenges that occassionally come to similar conclusions – and history would in all likelihood have progress exactly the same had we not had a Newton or Edison or Jobs.

The Factual Basis of Political Opinions

“Ideology is a menace.” Paul Collier says in his forthcoming book The Future of Capitalism and I couldn’t agree more: ideology (and by extension morality) “binds and blinds”, as psychology professor Jonathan Haidt describes it, and ideology, especially utopian dreams by dedicated rulers, is what allows – indeed accounts for – the darkest episodes of humanity. There is a strange dissonance among people for whom political positions, ideology and politics are supremely important:

  • They portray their position as if supported by facts and empirical claims about the world (or at least spit out such claims as if they did believe that)
  • At the same time, believing that their “core values” and “ideological convictions” are immune to factual objections (“these are my values; this is my opinion”)

My purpose here is to illustrate that all political positions, at least in part, have their basis in empirically verifiable claims about the world. What political pundits fail to understand is not only that facts rule the world, but that facts also limits the range of positions one can plausible take. You may read the following as an extension of “everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions, but not to his or her own facts”. Let me show you:

  • “I like ice-cream” is an innocent and unobjectionable opinion to have. Innocent because hey, who doesn’t like ice-cream, and unobjectionable because there is no way we can verify whether you actually like ice-cream. We can’t effortlessly observe the reactions in your brain from eating ice-cream or even criticize such a position.
  • “Ice-cream is the best thing in the world”, again unobjectionable, but perhaps not so innocent. Intelligent people may very well disagree over value scales, and it’s possible that for this particular person, ice-cream ranks higher than other potential candidates (pleasure, food, world peace, social harmony, resurrection of dinosaurs etc).
  • “I like ice-cream because it cures cancer”. This statement, however, is neither unobjectionable nor innocent. First, you’re making a causal claim about curing cancer, for which we have facts and a fair amount of evidence weighing on the matter. Secondly, you’re making a value judgment on the kinds of things you like (namely those that cure cancer). Consequently, that would imply that you like other things that cure cancer.

Without being skilled in medicine, I’m pretty sure the evidence is overwhelmingly against this wonderful cancer-treating property of ice-cream, meaning that your causal claim is simply wrong. That also means one that you have to update your position through a) finding a new reason to like ice-cream, thus either invoking some other empirical or causal statement we can verify or revert back to the subjective statements of preferences above, b) renege on your ice-cream position. There are no other alternatives.

Now, replace “ice-cream” above with *minimum wages* and “cancer” with “poverty” or any other politically contested issue of your choice, and the fundamental point here should be obvious: your “opinions” are not simply innocent statements of your unverifiable subjective preferences, but contain some factual basis in them. If political opinions, then, consists of subjective value preferences and statements about the world and/or causal connections between things, you are no longer “entitled to your own opinions”. You may form your preferences any way you like – subject to them being internally consistent – but you cannot hold opinions that are based on incorrect observations or causal derivations about the world.

Let me invoke my national heritage, illustrating the point more clearly from a recent discussion on Swedish television.  The “inflammatory” Jordan Peterson, as part of his world tour, visited Norway and Sweden over the past weekend. On Friday he was a guest at Skavlan, one of the most viewed shows in either country (boasting occasionally of more viewers than the large sport events) and– naturally– discussed feminism and gender differences. After explaining the scientific evidence for biological gender differences*, and the observed tendency for maximally (gender) egalitarian societies to have the largest rather than smallest gender-related outcomes, Peterson concludes:

“there are only two reasons men and women differ. One is cultural, and the other is biological. And if you minimize the cultural differences, you maximize the biological differences… I know – everyone’s shocked when they hear this – this isn’t shocking news, people have known this in the scientific community for at least 25 years.”

After giving the example of diverging gender rates among engineers and nurses he elaborates on equality of opportunity, to which one of the other talk show guests, Annie Lööf (MP and leader of the fourth largest party with 9% of the parliamentary seats) responds with feelings and personal anecdotes. Here’s the relevant segment transcribed (for context and clarity, I slightly amended their statements):

Peterson: “One of the answers is that you maximize people’s free choice. […] If you maximize free choice, then you also maximize differences in choice between people – and so you can’t have both of those [maximal equality of opportunity and minimal differences along gender lines]”

Lööf: “because we are human beings [there will always be differences in choice]; I can’t see why it differs between me and Skavlan for instance; of course it differs in biological things, but not in choices. I think more about how we raise them [children], how we live and that education, culture and attitudes form a human being whether or not they are a girl or a boy.”

Peterson: “Yes, yes. That is what people who think that the differences between people are primarily culturally constructed believe, but it is not what the evidence suggests.”

Lööf: “Ok, we don’t agree on that”.

So here’s the point: this is not a dispute over preferences. Whether or not biology influences (even constitute, to follow Pinker) the choices we make is not an “I like ice-cream” kind of dispute, where you can unobjectionably pick whatever flavor you like and the rest of us simply have to agree or disagree. This is a dispute of facts. Lööf’s positon on gender differences and her desire to politically alter outcomes of people’s choices is explicitly based on her belief that the behaviour of human beings is culturally predicated and thus malleable. If that causal and empirical proposition is incorrect (which Peterson suggests it is), she can no longer readily hold that position. Instead, what does she do? She says: “Ok, we don’t agree”, as if the dispute was over ice-cream!

Political strategizing or virtue signalling aside, this perfectly illustrates the problem of political “opinions”: they espouse ideological positions as the outcome of enlightened or informed fact-based positions, but when those empirical statements are disproved, they revert to being expressions of subjective preference without a consequent diminution of their worth! Conservatives still gladly hum along to Trump’s protectionism, despite overwhelmingly being contradicted in the factual part of their opinion; progressives heedlessly champion rent control, believing that it helps the poor when it overwhelmingly hurts the poor. And both camps act as if the rest of us should pay attention or go out of our way to support them over what, at best, amounts to “I like ice-cream” proposals.

Ideology is a menace, and political “opinions” are the forefront of that ideological menace.


*(For a comprehensive overview of the scientific knowledge of psychological differences between men and women, see Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate – or Pinker’s well-viewed TED-talk outline.)

The Capitalist Peace: What Happened to the Golden Arches Theory?

Many are familiar with the Democratic Peace Theory, the idea that two democracies have never waged war against one another. The point is widely recognized as one of the major benefits of democracy, and the hand-in-hand development of more democracies and fewer/less-devastating wars than virtually any other period of human history, is a tempting and enticing explanation.

Now, it is not overly difficult to come up with counter-examples to the Democratic Peace Theory, and indeed there’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to it. Here are some notable and obvious counters:

  • Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s
  • First Kashmir War between India and Pakistan War (1947-49)
  • Various wars between Israel and its neighbors (1967, 1973, 2006 etc)
  • The Football war (1969)
  • Paquisha and Cenepa wars (1981, 1995)

Some people even include the First World War and various 18th and 19th century armed conflicts between major powers (American War of Independence comes to mind), but the question of when a country becomes a democracy naturally arises.

There’s another, equally enticing explanation, the main rationale underlying European Integration: The Capitalist Peace, or in a more entertaining and relatable version: The Golden Arches Theory – as advanced by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in the mid-1990s:

No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against one another.

Countries, frankly, “have too much to lose to ever go to war with one another.” As a proposition it seems reasonable, an extension of the phrase apocryphally attributed to Bastiat: “When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will”. And not because your Big Mac meal comes with a side of peace-and-love or enhanced conflict-resolution skills, but because the introduction of McDonald’s stores represents close economic interdependence and global supply chains. After all, if your suppliers, your customers or your collegues consists of people on the other side of a potential military conflict, a war seems even less useful. Besides – paraphrasing Terry Anderson and Peter Hill in their superb The Not So Wild Wild Westtrading is cheaper than raiding. Even as adamant a critic as George Monbiot admits that a fair number of McDonald’s outlets “symbolised the transition” from poor and potentially trouble-making countries, to richer and peace-loving ones.

Not unlike poor Thomas Malthus, whose convicing theory had been correct up until that  point, reality rapidly decided to invalidate Friedman’s tongue-in-cheek explanation. Not long after it was published, the McDonald’s-ised nations of Pakistan and India decided to up their antics in the Kargil war, quickly undermining its near-flawless explanatory power of Friedman’s. Not one to leave all the fun to others, Russia engaged in no more than two wars in the 2000s to undermine the Golden Arches theory: the 2008 war with Georgia, and more recently the Crimean crisis. Adherring to their namesake creation, McDonald’s pull-out from Crimea was just a tad too late to vindicate Friedman.

The Capitalist Peace, the academic extension of the general truism that trading is cheaper than raiding, came undone pretty quickly thanks in part to our Russian friends. The updated version, the Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention, may unfortunately fall into the same trap as the Democratic Peace Theory: invoking ambiguous definitions that may ultimately collapse to mere than tautologies.

Do You have Silver?

In an episode of the Netflix medieval series The Last Kingdom, the protagonist Uthred, trying to purchase a sword from a blacksmith in a town he is just passing by, is instantly asked “Do you have silver?”.

In one scene, insignificant to the plot, the series creators neatly raised some fundamental questions in monetary economics, illustrating the relative use of credit and cash and the importance of finality.

For many centuries, the very payment system between people set severe constraints on what kinds of transactions they could – or dared – engage in. There are two main ways of providing payments (with quite a few variations within these categories): cash or credit.

Cash (sometimes referred to as ‘money transactions’) refers to payments with direct finality; the economic chain is instantly settled, and gives rise to no other economic relation. Examples here would be pure barter (where one object is traded for another) or commodity money (where an object is traded for a common media of exchange, with history providing countless fascinating examples: cattle, skin, olive oil, feathers, pearls etc).

The other category, credit, involves trading someone else’s liability or incurring a new one. Modern credit cards easily comes to mind: swiping that card settles the trade between the vendor and the customer who used the card only by creating two new (future) economic relations – a promise by the credit card company to transfer funds to the vendor, and a promise by the customer to pay the credit card company at the end of the month. The same features can be – and were – applied in many early societies; I give you some of my items, and you owe me; later I may transfer this “claim” to somebody else is the community in exchange for something I wanted, and instead of owing me, you owe them.

Some of the difficulties of monetary economics are here quickly revealed. In order for credit to work, a sufficient level of trust, repeated dealings or enforcement mechanisms must exist. If one or more parties do not trust each other, the two are unlikely to trade again or cannot socially or legally force the other into upholding his or her contract, they may refuse the deal up-front and lose the benefits of trade (the “backward induct,” in Game Theory-speak). Nevertheless going through with this transaction requires a different payment system: instant finality, such as provided with cash. Here’s the conundrum that troubles monetary economists:

The frictions that are needed to make money essential typically make credit infeasible and environments where credit is feasible are ones where money is typically not essential (Ugolini, The Evolution of Central Banking, p. 169)

If we trust each other enough (or have enough repeat dealings and a system of keeping track of everyone’s debts), there is no need for cash. If there is need for cash, that means we do not trust each other (or can’t keep track/enforce debts), indicating the presence of “frictions” that make us reluctant to use credit at all.

Let’s go back to our Last Kingdom protagonist. It is clear that the two characters are strangers (no previous dealings, no trust) and from simply passing through a village, no reason for the blacksmith to believe that there may be repeat dealings. A credit transaction is thus clearly out of question. Instead he directly asks for silver (cash), which initially seems to solve the problem. However, two further issues emerge:

  1. if all transactions were like this, the amount of cash everyone must carry around in the economy would be enormous. A common problem in medieval and even early modern societies were the lack of coins. If enough cash was simply not there and recourse to credit system unfeasible, we quickly realise how difficult transacting would be.
  2. even if the customer had enough cash, the very reason they were reluctant to use credit in the first place (no trust, no repeat dealings, no credible enforcement) harms their ability to transact in cash. Howso? Because both parties can opportunistically defect from the agreement. If the sword is paid for up front, the blacksmith can take the money and run – since they are strangers and unlikely to meet again, the cost of cheating is comparatively low. If the sword is paid for at delivery, the customer can easily renege on payment once delivery is obtained.

Is there no way out?

Uthred and the blacksmith use a method most of us are familiar with – indeed, probably even used as kids – pay half up-front, and half on delivery, with the possibility of a bonus payment (tip) at the end. Risk-minimising, yet offering payoff through the gains from trade.

Good monetary economics does precisely that: illustrating how monetary systems, including payment systems, can facilitate transactions and expand rather than limit the available gains from trade. It concerns itself with one of those spheres of (economic) life that we don’t notice until they breaks down. Try completing everyday transactions in countries with small-change shortage for a neat flashback to eighteenth century Britain or U.S., or in countries impaired by hyperinflation or sanctions. Monetary economics, in essence, is fascinating in its complexity of otherwise quite mundane things. Thanks to The Last Kingdom team for illustrating that.

Are Swedish University Tuitions Fees Really Free?

University tuition fees are always popular talking points in politics, media, and over family dinner tables: higher education is some kind of right; it’s life-changing for the individual and super-beneficial for society, thus governments ought to pay for them on economic as well as equity grounds (please read with sarcasm). In general, the arguments for entirely government-funded universities is popular way beyond the Bernie Sanders wing of American politics. It’s a heated debate in the UK and Australia, whose universities typically charge students tuition fees, and a no-brainer in most Scandinavian countries, whose universities have long had up-front tuition fees of zero.

Many people in the English-speaking world idolize Scandinavia, always selectively and always for the wrong reasons. One example is the university-aged cohort enviously drooling over Sweden’s generous support for students in higher education and, naturally, its tradition of not charging tuition fees even for top universities. These people are seldom as well informed about what it actually means – or that costs of attending university is probably lower in both England and Australia. Let me show you some vital differences between these three countries, and thereby shedding some much-needed light on the shallow debate over tution fees:

The entire idea with university education is that it pays off – not just socially, but economically – from the individual’s point of view: better jobs, higher lifetime earnings or lower risks of unemployment (there’s some dispute here, and insofar as it ever existed, the wage premium from a university degree has definitely shrunk over the last decades). The bottom line remains: if a university education increases your lifetime earnings and thus acts as an investment that yield individual benefits down the line, then individuals can appropriately and equitably finance that investment with debt. As an individual you have the financial means to pay back your loan with interest; as a lender, you have a market to earn money – neither of which is much different from, say, a small business borrowing money to invest and build-up his business. This is not controversial, and indeed naturally follows from the very common sense principle that those who enjoy the benefits ought to at least contribute towards its costs.

Another general reason for why we wouldn’t want to artificially price a service such as university education at zero is strictly economical; it bumps up demand above what is economically-warranted. University educations are scarce economic goods with all the properties we’re normally concerned about (has an opportunity cost in its use of rivalrous resources, with benefits accruing primarily to the individuals involved in the transaction), the use and distribution of which needs to be subject to the same market-test as every other good. Prices serve a socially-beneficial purpose, and that mechanism applies even in sectors people mistakenly believe to be public or social, access to which forms some kind of special “human right.”

From a political or social-justice point of view, such arguments tend to carry very little weight, which is why the funding-side matters so much. Because of debt-aversion or cultural reasons, lower socioeconomic stratas of societies tend not to go to university as much as progressives want them to – scrapping tuition fees thus seems like a benefit to those sectors of society. When the financing of those fees come out of general taxation however, they can easily turn regressive in their correct economic meaning, disproportionately benefiting those well off rather than the poor and under-privileged they intended to help:

The idea that graduates should make no contribution towards the tertiary education they will significantly benefit from it, while expecting the minimum wage hairdresser in Hull, or waiter in Wokingham to pick up the bill by paying higher taxes (or that their unborn children and grandchildren should have to pay them due to higher borrowing) is highly regressive.

Although not nearly enough people say it, university is not for everyone. The price tag confronts students, who perhaps would go to university to fulfill an expectation rather than for any wider economic or societal benefit, with a cost as well as a benefit of attending university.

Having said that, I suggest that attending university is probably more expensive in your utopian Sweden than in England or Australia. The two models these three countries have set up look very different at first: in Sweden the government pays the tuition and subsidies your studies; in England and Australia you have to take out debt in order to cover tuition fees. A cost is always bigger than no cost – how can I claim the reverse?

With the following provision: Australian and English students don’t have to pay back their debts until they earn above a certain income level (UK: £18,330; Australia: $55,874). That is, those students whose yearly earnings never reach these levels will have their university degree paid for by the government regardless. That means that the Scandinavian and Anglophone models are almost identical: no or low costs accrue for students today, in exchange for higher costs in the future provided you earn enough income. Clearly, paying additional income taxes when earning high incomes but not on low incomes (Sweden) or paying back my student debt to the government only if I earn high incomes rather than low (England, Australia) amounts to the same thing. Changing the label of a financial transfer from the individual to the government from “debt-repayment” to “tax” has very little meaning in reality.

In one way, the Aussie-English system is somewhat more efficient since it internalises costs to only those who benefited from the service rather than blanket taxing everyone above a certain income threshold: it allows high-income earners who did not reach such financial success from going to university to avoid paying the general penalty-tax on high-incomes that Swedish high-earners do.

Let me show the more technical aspect: In England, earning above £18,330 places you at a position in the 54th percentile, higher than the majority of income-earners. Similarly, in Australia, $55,874 places you above 52% of Aussie income-earners. For Sweden, with the highest marginal income taxes in the world, a similar statistics is trickier to estimate since there is no official cut-off point above which you need to repay it. Instead, I have to estimate the line at which you “start paying” the relevant tax. What line is then the correct one? Sweden has something like 14 different steps in its effective marginal tax schedule, ranging from 0% for monthly incomes below 18,900 SEK (~$2,070) to 69.8% for incomes above 660,000 SEK (~$72,350) or even 75% in estimations that include sales taxes of top-marginal taxes:

If we would place the income levels at which Australian and English students start paying back the cost of their university education, they’d both find themselves in the middle range facing a 45.8% effective marginal tax – suggesting that they would have greatly exceeded the income level at which Swedish students pay back their tuition fees. Moreover, the Australian threshold would exchange into 367,092 SEK as of today, for a position in the 81st percentile – that is higher than 81% of Swedish income-earners. The U.K., having a somewhat lower threshold, converts to 217,577 SEK and would place them in the 48th percentile, earning more than 48% of Swedish income-earners – we’re clearly not talking about very poor people here.

The fact that income-earners in Sweden face a much-elevated marginal tax schedule as well as the simplified calculations above do indicate that despite its level of tuition fees at zero, it is more expensive to attend university in Sweden than it is in England or Australia. Since Australia’s pay-back threshold is so high relative to the income distribution of Sweden (81%), it’s conceivably much cheaper for Australian students to attend university than for it is for Swedish students, even though the tuition list prices may differ (the American debate is much exaggerated precisely because so few people pay the universities’ official list prices).

Letting governments via general taxation completely fund universities is a regressive measure that probably hurts the poor more than it helps the rich. The solution to this is not some quota-scholarships-encourage-certain-groups-version but rather to a) increase and reinstate tuition fees where applicable or b) cut government funding to universities, or ideally get government out of the sector entirely.

That’s a progressive policy in respect to universities. Accepting that, however, would be anathema for most people in politics, left and right.

Economists vs. The Public

Economics is the dismal science, as Thomas Carlyle infamously said, reprising John Stuart Mill for defending the abolishment of slavery in the British Empire. But if being a “dismal science” includes respecting individual rights and standing up for early ideas of subjective, revealed, preferences – sign me up! Indeed, British economist Diane Coyle wisely pointed out that we should probably wear the charge as a badge of honor.

Non-economists, quite wrongly, attack economics for considering itself the “Queen of the Social Science”, firing up slurs, insults and contours: Economism, economic imperialism, heartless money-grabbers. Instead, I posit, one of our great contributions to mankind lies in clarity and, quoting Joseph Persky “an acute sensitivity to budget constraints and opportunity costs.”

Now, clarity requires one to be specific. To clearly define the terms of use, and refrain from the vague generality of unmeasurable and undefinable concepts so common among the subjects over whom economics is the queen. When economists do their best to be specific, they sometimes use terms that also have a colloquial meaning, seriously confusing the layman while remaining perfectly clear for those of us who “speak the language”. I realize the irony here, and therefore attempt my best to straighten out some of these things, giving the examples of 1) money and 2) investments.

An age-old way to see this mismatch is measuring the beliefs held by the vast majority of economists and the general public (Browsing the Chicago IGM surveys gives some examples of this). Bryan Caplan illustrates this very well in his 2006 book The Myth of the Rational Voter:

Noneconomists and economists appear to systematically disagree on an array of topics. The SAEE [“Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy”] shows that they do. Economists appear to base their beliefs on logic and evidence. The SAEE rules out the competing theories that economists primarily rationalize their self-interest or political ideology. Economists appear to know more about economics than the public. (p. 83)

Harvard Professor Greg Mankiw lists some well-known positions where the beliefs of economists and laymen diverge significantly (rent control, tariffs, agricultural subsidies and minimum wages). The case I, Mankiw, Caplan and pretty much any economist would make is one of appeal to authority: if people who spent their lives studying something overwelmingly agree on the consequences of a certain position within their area of expertise (tariffs, minimum wage, subsidies etc) and in stark opposition to people who at best read a few newspapers now and again, you may wanna go with the learned folk. Just sayin’.

Caplan even humorously compared the ‘appeal to authority’ of other professions to economists:

In principle, experts could be mistaken instead of the public. But if mathematicians, logicians, or statisticians say the public is wrong, who would dream of “blaming the experts”? Economists get a lot less respect. (p. 53)

Money, Wealth, Income

The average public confusingly uses all of these terms interchangeably. A rich person has ‘money’, and being rich is either a reference to income or to wealth, or sometimes both – sometimes even in the same sentence. Economists, being specialists, should naturally have a more precise and clear meaning attached to these words. For us Income refers to a flow of purchasing power over a certain period (=wage, interest payments), whereas Wealth is a stock of assets or “fixed” purchasing power; my monthly salary is income whereas the ownership of my house is wealth (the confusion here may be attributable to the fact that prices of wealth  shares, house prices etc  can and often do change over short periods of time, and that people who specialize in trading assets can thereby create income for themselves).

‘Money’, which to the average public means either wealth or income, is to the economist simply the metric we use, the medium of exchange, the physical/digital object we pass forth and back in order to clear transactions; representing the unit of account, the thing in which we calculate money (=dollars). That little green-ish piece of paper we instantly think of as ‘money’. To illustrate the difference: As a poor student, I may currently have very little income and even negative wealth, but I still possess money with which I pay my rent and groceries. In the same way, Bill Gates with massive amounts of wealth can lack ‘money’, simply meaning that he would need to stop by the ATM.


A lot like money, the practice of calling everything an ‘investment’ is annoying to most economists: the misuse drives us nuts! We’re commonly told that some durable consumption good was an investment, simply because I use it often; I’ve had major disagreements friends over the investment or consumption status of a) cars, b) houses, c) clothes, and d) every other object under the sun. Much like ‘money’, ‘investment’ to the general public seem to mean anything that gives you some form of benefit or pleasure. Or it may more narrowly mean buying financial assets (stocks, shares, derivatives…). For economists, it means something much more specific. Investopedia brilliantly explains it: The definition has two components; first, it generates an income (or is hoped to appreciate in value); secondly, it is not consumed today but used to create wealth:

An investment is an asset or item that is purchased with the hope that it will generate income or will appreciate in the future. In an economic sense, an investment is the purchase of goods that are not consumed today but are used in the future to create wealth.

This definition clearly shows why clothes, yoga mats and cars are not investments; they are clearly consumption goods that, although giving us lots of joy and benefits, generates zero income, won’t appreciate and is gradually worn out (i.e. consumed). Almost as clearly, houses (bought to live in) aren’t investments (newsflash a decade after the financial crisis); they generate no income for the occupants (but lots of costs!) and deteriorates over time as they are consumed. The only confusing element here is the appreciation in value, which is an abnormal feature of the last say four decades: the general trend in history has been that housing prices move with price inflation, i.e. don’t lose value other than through deterioration. In fact, Adam Smith said the very same thing about housing as an investment:

A dwelling-house, as such, contributed nothing to the revenue of its inhabitant; and though it is no doubt extremely useful to him, it is as his cloaths and household furniture are useful to him, which however make a part of his expence, and not his revenue. (AS, Wealth of Nations, II.1.12)

Cars are even worse, depreciating significantly the minute you leave the parking lot of the dealership. Where the Investopedia definition above comes up short is for business investments; when my local bakery purchases a new oven, it passes the first criteria (generates incomes, in terms of bread I can sell), but not the second, since it is generally consumed today. Some other tricky example are cases where political interests attempt to capture the persuasive language of economists for their own purposes: that we need to invest in our future, either meaning non-fossil fuel energy production, health care or some form of publicly-funded education. It is much less clear that these are investments, since they seldom generate an income and are more like extremely durable consumption goods (if they do classify on some kind of societal level, they seem like very bad ones).

In summary, economists think of investments as something yielding monetary returns in one way or another. Either directly like interest paid on bonds or deposits (or dividends on stocks) or like companies transforming inputs into revenue-generating output. It is, however, clear that most things the public refer to as investments (cars, clothes, houses) are very far from the economists’ understanding.

Economists and the general public often don’t see eye-to-eye. But improving the communication between the two should hopefully allow them to – indeed, the clarity with which we do so is our claim to fame in the first place.

Revised version of blog post originally published in Nov 2016 on Life of an Econ Student as a reflection on Establishment-General Public Divide.