16 May 2007  Working Papers

On The General Relativity of Fiscal Language

Executive Summary — The failure to distinguish economics from linguistics is distressingly common in fiscal policy and theoretical research. Like measures of time and distance, standard fiscal measures such as deficits, taxes, and transfer payments depend on one’s reference point, reporting procedure, language, and labels. Green and Kotlikoff’s paper provides a general proof that such standard fiscal measures are economically ill-defined and instead reflect the arbitrary labeling of underlying fiscal conditions. Key concepts include:

  • Official reports of deficits dramatically influence policy decisions while diverting attention from fundamental and meaningful measures of fiscal policy.
  • Analyses based on standard fiscal measures and on derivative measures such as disposable income, private asserts, and personal saving represent exercises in linguistics, not economics.

 

Author Abstract

A century ago, everyone thought time and distance were well defined physical concepts. But neither proved absolute. Instead, measures/reports of time and distance were found to depend on one's reference point, specifically one's direction and speed of travel, making our apparent physical reality, in Einstein's words, "merely an illusion."

Like time and distance, standard fiscal measures, including deficits, taxes, and transfer payments, depend on one's reference point/reporting procedure/language/labels. As such, they too represent numbers in search of concepts that provide the illusion of meaning where none exists.

This paper, dedicated to our dear friend, David Bradford, provides a general proof that standard and routinely used fiscal measures, including the deficit, taxes, and transfer payments, are economically ill-defined. Instead these measures reflect the arbitrary labeling of underlying fiscal conditions. Analyses based on these and derivative measures, such as disposable income, private assets, and personal saving, represent exercises in linguistics, not economics.

More on this research:
When Words Get in the Way: The Failure of Fiscal Language

Paper Information