economic_justice__pavel_constantin

Special mention

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Who are the capitalists?

It’s one of those questions I always pose to my students, and they always get wrong. Their mainstream economics courses don’t offer much help, since the term is never even mentioned. (I know, bizarre, since presumably what the students are being taught is a theory of capitalism, which surely includes capitalists.)

But, after scratching their heads for a while (since, clearly, they haven’t really thought about it before), they finally offer up some guesses: Shareholders? CEOs? Everyone?

Nope, I patiently and sympathetically respond. Not shareholders, since they offer money to firms in exchange for some portion of equity ownership, for which they receive a cut of the profits in the form of dividends. They’re not capitalists. Nor are the CEOs, who are hired by the capitalists to run the enterprises on a day-to-day basis.* And most of us are not capitalists, since we receive the bulk of our income in the form of wages; we don’t deploy capital to generate additional money in the form of profits.

So, my questions to them continue: What is the position of capital in corporate America? Who occupies that position? Who is the personification of capital in contemporary capitalism? Who is Mr. (and Ms.) Moneybags?

They remain stumped. And so I answer my own question: the boards of directors of capitalist corporations.

As I explained earlier this year:

The members of the boards of directors of corporations (say, of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies) are the ones who sit at the top and are ultimately responsible for the enterprises. They are the people who, during occasional meetings of the boards (for which they receive a small fee), decide the general direction of the corporation, hire and oversee top executives, and fend off crises. In other words, they occupy the position of capital and appropriate the surplus created by the workers within those enterprises. . .

Within contemporary capitalism, then, capitalists are members of corporate boards of directors. And it’s a tiny group. Given that boards are made up of 10-15 members, we’re talking about (for the leading, S&P 500 companies) only 6250 individuals. Even less (closer to 4500), if we subtract interlocking directorates, that is, individuals who sit on more than one board.

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But I was wrong—not about who occupies the position of capital, but about those “small fees.” As it turns out, according to recent research by Williams Tower Watson (a business consultancy that designs “solutions that manage risk, optimize benefits, cultivate talent and expand the power of capital to protect and strengthen institutions and individuals”), the average compensation of members of corporate boards of directors again increased last year, to $265,748 (about half in cash, the other half in stocks). That’s no “small fee” for a part-time position, which involves attending a few board meetings and offering occasional advice—and it’s a lot more than $160,000, which was the average board member’s compensation in 2006.**

So, as it turns out, the small group of individuals who occupy the position of Mr. (and, increasingly, Ms.) Moneybags not only appropriate the surplus from their workers. They also distribute to themselves a growing chunk of that surplus.

Not a bad job if you can get it. . .

 

*Corporate CEOs may not be capitalists but they’re certainly well compensated for their service to capital. According to the Economic Policy Institute [ht: sm], “in 2015, CEOs in America’s largest firms made an average of $15.5 million in compensation, which is 276 times the annual average pay of the typical worker.”

**According to Jena McGregor, “the average director would seem to be earning a little more than $1,000 an hour.”

 

 

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Sebastian Mallaby referred to Paul Romer’s scheme of building charter cities as Empire 2.0 (which is much the same connection I made back in 2010).

the largest obstacle Romer faces, by his own admission, still remains: he has to find countries willing to play the role of Britain in Hong Kong. Despite the good arguments that Romer makes for his vision, the responsibilities entailed in Empire 2.0 are not popular. How would a rich government contend with the shantytowns that might spring up around the borders of a charter city? Would it deport the inhabitants, and be accused of human-rights abuses? Or tolerate them and allow its oasis to be overrun with people who don’t respect its city charter? And what would the foreign trustee do if its host tried to nullify the lease? Would it defend its development experiment with an expeditionary army, as Margaret Thatcher defended the Falklands? A top official at one of Europe’s aid agencies told me, “Since we are responsible for our remaining overseas territories, I can tell you there is much grief in running these things. I would be surprised if Romer gets any takers.”

According to an announcement on his own blog, Romer is now headed to the World Bank.

There, Romer will be able to develop his imperial scheme—and, presumably, as I described his work last year, eliminate political “mathiness” and steer the focus of attention to “nonrival ideas” and away from capital and the real problems of growth within capitalist economies.

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Special mention

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If you’ve been following the Republican National Convention, however casually (and with whatever guilty pleasure or revulsion), you’ll know that tonight will highlight presidential candidate Donald Trump. It will also feature libertarian futurist Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, first outside investor in Facebook, manager of the hedge fund Clarium Capital Management, and member of the elite venture-capital firm Founders Fund.

Recent stories about Thiel have highlighted his controversial goal to save capitalism from democracy or at least to weaken America’s attachment to democratic government, the extent to which his support for Trump runs counter to the rest of Silicon Valley, and his love of “creative destruction“—all of which are presaged in Thiel’s 2009 essay in Cato Unbound.

I remain committed to the faith of my teenage years: to authentic human freedom as a precondition for the highest good. I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual. For all these reasons, I still call myself “libertarian.”

But I must confess that over the last two decades, I have changed radically on the question of how to achieve these goals. Most importantly, I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible. By tracing out the development of my thinking, I hope to frame some of the challenges faced by all classical liberals today.

But it’s George Packer‘s 2011 profile for the New Yorker that remains the most thorough exploration of his life and views—of Thiel as a contrarian (one who always tried “to go against the crowd, to identify opportunities in places where people are not looking”) and as a trenchant critic of the establishment:

Unlike many Silicon Valley boosters, Thiel knows that, as he puts it, thirty miles to the east most people are not doing well, and that this problem is more important than the next social-media company. He also knows that the establishment has been coasting for a long time and is out of answers. “The failure of the establishment points, maybe, to Marxism,” he said. “Maybe it points to libertarianism. It sort of suggests that we’ll get something outside the establishment, but it’s going to be this increasingly volatile trajectory of figuring out what that’s going to be.”

That’s one thing Thiel is probably right about: the failure of the establishment, of existing economic and political elites, may point to Marxism—but, in any case, has put us on an “increasingly volatile trajectory of figuring out” what that something “outside the establishment” is going to be.

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Hans Haacke, “The Invisible Hand of the Market” (2009)

Mainstream economists have attempted to model and disseminate the idea of the invisible hand, especially in their textbooks.*

And, not surprisingly, many others—from heterodox economists to artists—have challenged the whole notion of the invisible hand.

But one of the best critiques of the invisible hand I have encountered can be found in Kim Stanley Robinson’s story, “Mutt and Jeff Push the Button” (which appears in Fredric Jameson’s recent book, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army).

Here’s a longish extract:

“So, we live in a money economy where everything is grossly underpriced, except for rich people’s compensation, but that’s not the main problem. The main problem is we’ve agreed to let the market set prices.”

“The invisible hand.”

“Right. Sellers offer goods and services, buyers buy them, and in the flux of supply and demand the price gets determined. That’s the cumulative equilibrium, and its prices change as supply and demand change. It’s crowdsourced, it’s democratic, it’s the market.”

“The only way.”

“Right. But it’s always, always wrong. Its prices are always too low, and so the world is fucked. We’re in a mass extinction event, the climate is cooked, there’s a food panic, everything you’re not reading in the news.”

“All because of the market.”

“Exactly. It’s not just there are market failures. It’s the market is a failure.”

“How so, what do you mean?”

“I mean the cumulative equilibrium underprices everything. Things and services are sold for less than it costs to make them.”

“That sounds like the road to bankruptcy.”

“It is, and lots of businesses do go bankrupt. But the ones that don’t haven’t actually made a profit, they’ve just gotten away with selling their thing for less than it cost to make it. They do that by hiding or ignoring some of the costs of making it. That’s what everyone does, because they’re under the huge pressure of market competition. They can’t be undersold or they’ll go out of business, because every buyer buys the cheapest version of whatever. So the sellers have to shove some of their production costs off their books. They can pay their labor less, of course. They’ve done that, so labor is one cost they don’t pay. That’s why we’re broke. Then raw materials, they hide the costs of obtaining them, also the costs of turning them into stuff. Then they don’t pay for the infrastructure they use to get their stuff to market, and they don’t pay for the wastes they dump in the air and water and ground. Finally they put a price on their good or service that’s about 10 percent of what it really cost to make, and buyers buy it at that price. The seller shows a profit, shareholder value goes up, the executives take their bonuses and leave to do it again somewhere else, or retire to their mansion island. Meanwhile the biosphere and the workers who made the stuff, also all the generations to come, they take the hidden costs right in the teeth.”

 

*As I have discussed before, the invisible hand is a powerful metaphor “for which neoclassical economists have worked very hard to invent a tradition beginning with Adam Smith.” Smith himself only used the term twice in his published writings—once in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and again in The Wealth of Nations—and never to refer to a self-equilibrating market system, which is the way the term is used by mainstream economists today.

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Apparently, Gravity Payments CEO Dan Price [ht: sm] recently received a gift from his employees, a new Tesla.

Price and Gravity gained fame last year when the young CEO announced to much fanfare a plan to raise pay to $70,000 a year for all employees, after a phase-in period. Price said he would also make $70,000, dropping his salary from more than $1 million annually. . .

Gravity spokesman Ryan Pirkle said the gift was thought up and organized by Alyssa O’Neal, an employee who he said was one of the “most impacted” by the raise.

A gift for a gift. Price decided to raise the salaries of his employees, and they reciprocated by buying him a new car.

It’s a heart-warming story. But, as I wrote a year ago,

I’m not prepared to celebrate Price as a “good capitalist,” as against all the “bad capitalists” who are choosing to increase the gap between average workers’ pay and the enormous payments to CEOs.

My point is a actually somewhat different: first, that capitalists—whether in Columbus or Seattle—do lots of different things, and presuming they follow a simple rule (whether profit-maximization as in the usual neoclassical story, or the accumulation of capital in many heterodox stories) means missing out on the complex, contradictory dynamics of capitalist enterprises; and second, that other kinds of enterprises (in which workers themselves make the decisions about how the surplus is appropriated and distributed) would do even more, on a wider scale, to transform the dynamics of the distribution of income and wealth in the U.S. economy.

It’s the difference between an individual gift and a gift economy. In the former, workers are forced to rely on the benevolence of their employer, to whom they feel beholden; in the latter, because they participate in appropriating the surplus they produce, workers actually have the means to regularly bestow gifts on themselves as a collectivity, on whatever bosses they may have chosen, and on the wider society with which they have a reciprocal relationship.

Now, that’s a gift economy worth celebrating.