Chapter | Institutional Foundations of Public Finance | 2009

On the General Relativity of Fiscal Language

by Jerry R. Green and Lawrence Kotlikoff


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.

Keywords: Economics; Finance; Labels; Measurement and Metrics;


Green, Jerry R., and Lawrence Kotlikoff. "On the General Relativity of Fiscal Language." In Institutional Foundations of Public Finance, edited by Alan J. Auerbach and Daniel Shaviro. Harvard University Press, 2009.