The Euthanasia of the Saver

In chapter 24 of The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, John Maynard Keynes laid out his screwball idea that capital might soon become, or be made to become, no longer scarce; hence no payment would have to be made to induce people to save, and that condition would be splendid inasmuch as it would entail the “euthanasia of the rentier.” This stuff really must be seen to be believed; here is the meat of Keynes’s discussion in his own words:

The justification for a moderately high rate of interest has been found hitherto in the necessity of providing a sufficient inducement to save. But we have shown that the extent of effective saving is necessarily determined by the scale of investment and that the scale of investment is promoted by a low rate of interest, provided that we do not attempt to stimulate it in this way beyond the point which corresponds to full employment. Thus it is to our best advantage to reduce the rate of interest to that point relatively to the schedule of the marginal efficiency of capital at which there is full employment.

There can be no doubt that this criterion will lead to a much lower rate of interest than has ruled hitherto; and, so far as one can guess at the schedules of the marginal efficiency of capital corresponding to increasing amounts of capital, the rate of interest is likely to fall steadily, if it should be practicable to maintain conditions of more or less continuous full employment—unless, indeed, there is an excessive change in the aggregate propensity to consume (including the State).

I feel sure that the demand for capital is strictly limited in the sense that it would not be difficult to increase the stock of capital up to a point where its marginal efficiency had fallen to a very low figure. This would not mean that the use of capital instruments would cost almost nothing, but only that the return from them would have to cover little more than their exhaustion by wastage and obsolescence together with some margin to cover risk and the exercise of skill and judgment. In short, the aggregate return from durable goods in the course of their life would, as in the case of short-lived goods, just cover their labour costs of production plus an allowance for risk and the costs of skill and supervision.

Now, though this state of affairs would be quite compatible with some measure of individualism, yet it would mean the euthanasia of the rentier, and, consequently, the euthanasia of the cumulative oppressive power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity-value of capital. Interest today rewards no genuine sacrifice, any more than does the rent of land. The owner of capital can obtain interest because capital is scarce, just as the owner of land can obtain rent because land is scarce. But whilst there may be intrinsic reasons for the scarcity of land, there are no intrinsic reasons for the scarcity of capital. An intrinsic reason for such scarcity, in the sense of a genuine sacrifice which could only be called forth by the offer of a reward in the shape of interest, would not exist, in the long run, except in the event of the individual propensity to consume proving to be of such a character that net saving in conditions of full employment comes to an end before capital has become sufficiently abundant. But even so, it will still be possible for communal saving through the agency of the State to be maintained at a level which will allow the growth of capital up to the point where it ceases to be scarce.

I see, therefore, the rentier aspect of capitalism as a transitional phase which will disappear when it has done its work. And with the disappearance of its rentier aspect much else in it besides will suffer a sea-change. It will be, moreover, a great advantage of the order of events which I am advocating, that the euthanasia of the rentier, of the functionless investor, will be nothing sudden, merely a gradual but prolonged continuance of what we have seen recently in Great Britain, and will need no revolution. [pp. 375-76]

Given the Fed’s policy during the past three years of, first, driving short-term interest rates down almost to zero, and, more recently, undertaking Operation Twist, with the intent of driving longer-term interest rates down to levels that, in real terms, equal or fall below zero, we might seriously wonder whether Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues have decided to give a shove to the wheel of history that Keynes longingly anticipated.

However that may be, no one can dispute that people who rely on the earnings on invested funds to support themselves—a situation in which many retired persons in particular find themselves—are now in a world of hurt. Bank savings accounts are paying interest rates of 1 percent or less. Certificates of deposit are paying 0.5 percent to 1.7 percent, depending on the term. U.S. Treasury bonds with terms of 5 to 30 years are yielding in the neighborhood of 1 percent to 3 percent.

In short, the highest yield available to ordinary investors who seek a simple, low-risk investment of their funds is, at best, roughly equal to the rate of inflation—and then, with a 30-year term to maturity, only with substantial risk of capital loss if interest rates should rise. To put the matter another way, all ordinary investors are now being progressively impoverished because the nominal return on their investments falls short of the loss of purchasing power of the dollar during the term of the investment. Getting a positive real rate of return is effectively impossible for the proverbial widows and orphans. Only investors with the knowledge of how to invest in gold, crude commodities, and other such esoteric assets stand any chance of earning positive real returns, and then only with great risk of substantial capital losses.

Given that the Fed’s official policy is to drive all interest rates to near zero, one may conclude that the Fed seeks to impoverish the widows, orphans, retired people, and all other financially untutored people who rely on interest earnings to support themselves in their old age or adversity. Can a crueller official policy be imagined, short of grinding up these unfortunate souls to make pet food or fertilizer?

The politicians constantly bark about their solicitude for those who are helpless and in difficulty through no fault of their own. Yet, the scores of millions of people who saved money to support themselves in old age now find themselves progressively robbed by the very officials who purport to be their protectors. There are many reasons to oppose the Fed’s policy. The reason brought to mind by the official enthanasia of the nation’s small savers deserves far more attention than it has received to date.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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