It is commonly accepted that “true” economic growth is the growth driven by technological innovation, and it is roughly approximated by a country’s GDP per capita growth. However, as I argued in an earlier post, short-term economic growth numbers could be distorted by monetary and fiscal policy choices. For example, a government may boost short-term GDP numbers by borrowing money through the sale of its long-term debt (say, twenty year bonds). By doing so, it employs the fundamental “time machine” feature of finance, which allows for the exchange of an uncertain future payoff for a certain payoff today. Ultimately, the repayment of the long-term government debt would be driven by the overall economy twenty years from now, i.e. people working, producing, consuming, and paying taxes then. Some of these people may not even be born today – how can we know for sure the number of workers and how productive they will be twenty years from now?
Innovation is the ultimate driver of economic growth. Innovations big and small are essential for us to be better off tomorrow than we are today. However, it is also critical to sort out good innovations from wasteful ones. Good innovations then have to be adequately financed and nurtured in order to develop to their full potential. Financing potential breakthroughs in technologies “like we’ve never seen before” requires expertise, vision, and guts, as most radically new ideas may initially sound like “crazy talk”.
The most effective investments … are investments in politics.
– Boris Berezovsky
Am I seriously quoting the late Russian oligarch about investments in politics? After all, Berezovky brazenly manipulated political outcomes in Russia for personal gain. Am I implying that investors do the same? Not exactly… While it is certainly not possible for a typical investor to manipulate the political landscape on such a grand scale, it is possible to achieve superior returns by taking the time to understand politics in order to anticipate developments that affect all financial markets.
Once you start thinking about economic growth, it’s hard to think about anything else.
– Robert E. Lucas
Q: What is the difference between maintaining sound fiscal policy and running a pyramid scheme with respect to government debt?
A: It all depends on the economy’s predicted growth rate.
What is economic growth, where does it come from, and how do we measure it? These are simple questions, but it is fundamentally important to get them right in order to understand what is ahead for the U.S. economy, and how its growth relates to government fiscal policy. Here I would like to take a look at how we measure economic growth, and argue that sometimes true economic growth may not be what it seems, at least in the short term.