alec

Alec Monopoly, “Flying Monopoly” (2015)

In the second installment of this series on “class before Trumponomics,” I argued that, in recent decades, while American workers have created enormous wealth, most of the increase in that wealth has been captured by their employers and a tiny group at the top—as workers have been forced to compete with one another for new kinds of jobs, with fewer protections, at lower wages, and with less security than they once expected. And the period of recovery from the Second Great Depression has done nothing to change that fundamental dynamic.

In this post, I want to focus on a more detailed analysis of the other side of the class relationship—capital.

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It should come as no surprise that one of the major changes in U.S. capital over the past few decades is the growing importance of financial activities. Since 1980, FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) has almost doubled, expanding from roughly 12 percent of the gross output of private industries to over 20 percent.

finance

And the rise in the share of corporate profits from financial activities was even more spectacular—from 10.8 percent in 1984 to a whopping 37.4 percent in 2002—and then falling during the crash, but still at a historically high 26.6 percent in 2015.

By any measure, U.S. capital became increasingly oriented toward finance beginning in the early 1980s—as traditional banks (deposit-gathering commercial banks), non-bank financial entities (especially shadow banking, such as investment banks, hedge funds, insurers and other non-bank financial institutions), and even the financial arm of industrial corporations (such as the General Motors Acceptance Corporation, now Ally Financial) absorbed and then profited by creating new claims on the surplus.

This process of “financialization” was the flip side of the decreasing labor share in the U.S. economy: On one hand, stagnant wages meant both an increasing surplus, which could be recycled via the financial sector, and a growing market for loans, as workers sought to maintain their customary level of consumption via increasing indebtedness. On the other hand, the production of commodities (both goods and services) became less important than capturing a portion of the surplus from around the world, and utilizing it via issuing loans and selling derivatives to receive even more.

international

Not only did finance become increasingly internationalized, so did the U.S. economy as a whole. As a result of employers’ decisions to outsource the production of commodities that had previously been manufactured in the United States and to find external markets for the sale of other commodities (especially services), and with the assistance of the lowering of tariffs and the signing of new trade agreements, the U.S. economy was increasingly opened up from the early-1970s onward. One indicator of this globalization is the increase in the weight of international trade (the sum of exports and imports) in relation to U.S. GDP—more than tripling between 1970 (9.33 percent) to 2014 (29.1 percent).

bank-concentration

The third major change in U.S. capital in recent decades is a rise in the degree of corporate concentration and centralization—to such an extent even the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (pdf) has taken notice. A wave of mergers and acquisitions has made firms larger and has increased the degree of market concentration within a broad range of industries. In finance, for example, the market share of the five largest banks (measured in terms of their assets as a share of total commercial banking assets) more than doubled between 1996 and 2014—rising from 23.2 percent to 47.9 percent.

airlines

The U.S. airline industry also experienced considerable merger and acquisition activity, especially following deregulation in 1978. The figure above (from a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office [pdf]) provides a timeline of mergers and acquisitions for the four largest surviving domestic airlines—American, Delta, Southwest, and United—based on the number of passengers served. These four airlines accounted for approximately 85 percent of total passenger traffic in the United States in 2013.

profits-interest

Another piece of evidence that concentration and centralization have increased within the U.S. economy is (following Jason Furmanthe growing gap between corporate profits and interest-rates. The fact that corporate profits (as a share of national income, the top line in the chart above) have risen while interest-rates (the nominal constant-maturity 1-year rate estimated by the Federal Reserve, less inflation defined by the Consumer Price Index, the bottom line in the chart above) indicates that the portion of profits created by oligopoly rents has grown in recent decades.*

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Together, the three main tendencies I have highlighted—financialization, internationalization, and corporate rents—indicate a fundamental change in U.S. capital since the 1980s, which has continued during the current recovery. One of the effects of those changes is a decline in the importance of manufacturing, especially in relation to FIRE, as can be seen in the chart above. Manufacturing (as measured by value added as a percentage of GDP) has declined from 22.9 percent (in 1970) to 12 percent (in 2015), while FIRE moved in the opposite direction—from 14.2 percent to 20.3 percent. Quantitatively, the two sectors have traded places, which qualitatively signifies a change in how U.S. capital manages to capture the surplus. While it still appropriates surplus from its own workers (although now more in the production and export of services than in manufacturing), it now captures the surplus, from workers inside and outside the United States, via financial activities. On top of that, the largest firms are capturing additional portions of the surplus from other, smaller corporations via oligopoly rents.

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What we’ve witnessed then is a fundamental transformation of U.S. capital and thus the U.S. economy, which begins to explain a whole host of recent trends—from the decrease in rates of economic growth (since capital is engaged less in investment than in other activities, such as stock buybacks, hoarding profits in the form of cash, and mergers and acquisitions) to the rise in corporate executive pay in relation to average worker pay (which has ballooned, from 29.9 in 1978 to 275.6 in 2015).

What is clear is that the decisions of U.S. capital as it changed over the course of recent decades created the conditions for the crash of 2007-08 and the unevenness of the subsequent recovery, which culminated in the victory of Donald Trump in November 2016.

 

*Another way to get at these oligopoly rents is to distinguish between the capital share and the profit share. According to Simcha Barkai (pdf), the decline in the labor share over the last 30 years was not offset by an increase in the capital share, which actually declined. But it was accompanied by an increase in the profit share, due to a rise in mark-ups.

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Special mention

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Funding for public higher education has been decreasing in recent decades and, as schools rely increasingly on tuition for revenue, student debt has been rising.

That much is pretty well known. What is less a matter of public knowledge and debate is the link between growing racial and ethnic diversity and the decline in funding. I, for one, hadn’t considered it before. I knew the cuts in higher education hurt working-class Americans but I hadn’t thought about those cuts in relation to the increase in minority populations.

Until I read the article by Scott Carlson [ht: mfa], in the Chronicle of Higher Education [ht: mfa], who explores the issue in some depth. Carlson looks back at the history of public higher education (including the GI bill and the Reagan-era cuts in Pell Grants), the dog-whistle politics that have limited access for minority- and first-generation students (beginning when Ronald Reagan was governor of California and continuing with William J. Bennett, President Reagan’s secretary of education), and the undermining of the idea of public colleges and universities as an affordable way for working-class youth—white, black, and brown—to obtain a high-quality postsecondary education.

Since Carlson’s article will soon be out of reach behind a paywall, I want to quote at length his discussion of what has been happening in Arizona:

If the federal government doesn’t expand access to education, more of that burden will fall on states. In many of them, individuals and families now pay for a greater share of college costs than taxpayers do. Some places, like Arizona, have been going the way of California years ago.

Arizona’s legislature is whiter, more male, and more Republican than its population. And lately, that state — which has a clause in its constitution proclaiming that higher education “shall be as nearly free as possible” — has passed deep cuts in funding and big increases in tuition.

One of the leaders of that drive is John Kavanagh, a Republican state representative and community-college professor who has made headlines for his anti-immigration stance and remarks about Hispanics and Muslims. In an interview with The Chronicle, he was more measured, saying that the state has had to raise tuition to close a budget gap.

In 2012, he sponsored a bill that would require all students, regardless of income, to pay at least $2,000 toward tuition, in part to ease the burden on middle- and upper-middle-income students. He believes students should have “some skin in the game,” and bristles at the notion of poor students’ paying less, thanks to tuition revenue that gets redistributed as aid.

“I don’t think it’s a good policy to take money from one student to pay for another student’s tuition,” he said. “There is no reason that even a poor student can’t pay a nominal tuition, given that they are going to earn a lot more money than people who don’t have college degrees.”

But Alfredo Gutierrez, president of Maricopa Community College’s governing board and a former Democratic state senator, doesn’t buy the straight argument against subsidies. The state has been extraordinarily hostile to education, he says, a pattern he believes is tied to race. State funding for the Maricopa system had been going down since 2009, he says, until it got none last year. Half of Maricopa’s students are nonwhite.

“The deterioration to the K-12 system, the community-college system, and the universities will ultimately have to be paid for,” Mr. Gutierrez says. “If this trajectory that we are on continues, this will be an extraordinarily ignorant, uneducated state — certainly not a place that can deal with the economy of the future. And it will create a permanent underclass. There will be little ability to escape poverty.”

But Arizona, he predicts, is on the cusp of change. The Latino population is growing so fast that in six to 10 years, Arizona could flip over politically, possibly taking the state in a different direction, one that is more willing to invest in the education of immigrants and minority groups.

“Perhaps we have lost a generation,” he says, “but there is still a real opportunity to make a change.”

But Arizona is not alone. The deterioration of public education at all levels has been occurring across the country and, like much that has been happening in the United States in recent decades, it represents an attack on those least able to shoulder its effects: the children of the working-class, in all their racial and ethnic diversity.

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Special mention

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Special mention

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Back in 2010, Charles Ferguson, the director of Inside Job, exposed the failure of prominent mainstream economists who wrote about and spoke on matters of economic policy to disclose their conflicts of interest in the lead-up to the crash of 2007-08. Reuters followed up by publishing a special report on the lack of a clear standard of disclosure for economists and other academics who testified before the Senate Banking Committee and the House Financial Services Committee between late 2008 and early 2010, as lawmakers debated the biggest overhaul of financial regulation since the 1930s.

Well, economists are still at it, leveraging their academic prestige with secret reports justifying corporate concentration.

That’s according to a new report from ProPublica:

If the government ends up approving the $85 billion AT&T-Time Warner merger, credit won’t necessarily belong to the executives, bankers, lawyers, and lobbyists pushing for the deal. More likely, it will be due to the professors.

A serial acquirer, AT&T must persuade the government to allow every major deal. Again and again, the company has relied on economists from America’s top universities to make its case before the Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission. Moonlighting for a consulting firm named Compass Lexecon, they represented AT&T when it bought Centennial, DirecTV, and Leap Wireless; and when it tried unsuccessfully to absorb T-Mobile. And now AT&T and Time Warner have hired three top Compass Lexecon economists to counter criticism that the giant deal would harm consumers and concentrate too much media power in one company.

Today, “in front of the government, in many cases the most important advocate is the economist and lawyers come second,” said James Denvir, an antitrust lawyer at Boies, Schiller.

Economists who specialize in antitrust — affiliated with Chicago, Harvard, Princeton, the University of California, Berkeley, and other prestigious universities — reshaped their field through scholarly work showing that mergers create efficiencies of scale that benefit consumers. But they reap their most lucrative paydays by lending their academic authority to mergers their corporate clients propose. Corporate lawyers hire them from Compass Lexecon and half a dozen other firms to sway the government by documenting that a merger won’t be “anti-competitive”: in other words, that it won’t raise retail prices, stifle innovation, or restrict product offerings. Their optimistic forecasts, though, often turn out to be wrong, and the mergers they champion may be hurting the economy.

Right now, the United States is experiencing a wave of corporate mergers and acquisitions, leading to increasing levels of concentration, reminiscent of the first Gilded Age. And, according to ProPublica, a small number of hired guns from economics—who routinely move through the revolving door between government and corporate consulting—have written reports for and testified in favor of dozens of takeovers involving AT&T and many of the country’s other major corporations.

Looking forward, the appointment of Republican former U.S. Federal Trade Commission member Joshua Wright to lead Donald Trump’s transition team that is focused on the Federal Trade Commission may signal even more mergers in the years ahead. Earlier this month Wright expressed his view that

Economists have long rejected the “antitrust by the numbers” approach. Indeed, the quiet consensus among antitrust economists in academia and within the two antitrust agencies is that mergers between competitors do not often lead to market power but do often generate significant benefits for consumers — lower prices and higher quality. Sometimes mergers harm consumers, but those instances are relatively rare.

Because the economic case for a drastic change in merger policy is so weak, the new critics argue more antitrust enforcement is good for political reasons. Big companies have more political power, they say, so more antitrust can reduce this power disparity. Big companies can pay lower wages, so we should allow fewer big firms to merge to protect the working man. And big firms make more money, so using antitrust to prevent firms from becoming big will reduce income inequality too. Whatever the merits of these various policy goals, antitrust is an exceptionally poor tool to use to achieve them. Instead of allowing consumers to decide companies’ fates, courts and regulators decided them based on squishy assessments of impossible things to measure, like accumulated political power. The result was that antitrust became a tool to prevent firms from engaging in behavior that benefited consumers in the marketplace.

And, no doubt, there will be plenty of mainstream economists who will be willing, for large payouts, to present the models that justify a new wave of corporate mergers and acquisitions in the years ahead.

locher

I’m always pleased when Marx’s critique of political economy and the theory of value are topics of discussion, especially since students are rarely exposed to those ideas in their usual mainstream economics courses. Their professors generally don’t know about any theory of value other than the neoclassical economics they learned and preach—and, as a consequence, students aren’t taught that there is a fundamental critique of the neoclassical theory of value that stems from Marx’s work.

The result is, in fact, quite embarrassing. When I ask students to compare Marx’s theory of profits with the neoclassical theory of profits, they have no idea what I’m talking about. The way they learn economics from my neoclassical colleagues, profits are competed away. “So,” I ask them, “what you have is a theory of capitalism according to which there are no profits”? Then, of course, I have to start all over, teach them the neoclassical theory of profits (as the normal return to capital, rK, where r is the profit rate and K the amount of capital) and only then explain to them the Marxian critique of neoclassical profits (based on s, the amount of surplus-value that arises through exploitation). I am forced to make up for mainstream economists’ poor understanding and explanation of their own theory.

So, good, we now have a new discussion of Marx’s approach—first in the form of Branko Milanovic’s “primer” and then in Fred Moseley’s response to Milanovic. Both are well worth reading in their entirety—and I agree with many of the ideas they put forward.

But I do have a few major disagreements with their treatments. Milanovic, for example, insists that Marx develops his theory through three kinds of production: non-capitalism, “petty commodity production,” and capitalism. I read Marx differently. My view is that Marx starts with the commodity and then proceeds to develop, step by step (across volumes 1, 2, and 3 of Capital), the conditions of existence of capitalist commodity production, which is the goal of the analysis. These are not different historical stages or kinds of production but, rather, different levels of abstraction. So, conceptually, Marx starts from one proposition (that the value and exchange-value of commodities are equal to the amount of socially necessary abstract labor-time embodied in their production), then proceeds to another (where the value and exchange-value of commodities are equal to the value of capital, both variable and constant, and surplus-value embodied in the commodity during the course of production), and finally to a third level (where value and exchange-value can’t be equal, since the price of production, p, now includes an average rate of return on capital).

My other two concerns pertain to both authors. Milanovic and Moseley assert that Marx’s focus was mainly at the macro level, “the determination of the total profit (or surplus-value) produced in the capitalist economy as a whole.” I didn’t understand that idea back in 2013 and I remain unconvinced today. As I see it, Marx focused on both the micro and macro level and in fact worked to make his theory consistent at the two levels. Starting with the value of individual commodities (as I explained above), Marx concluded that, at the aggregate level, two identities needed to hold: the total value of commodities equaled the sum of their prices, and total surplus-value equalled total profits. That’s both a micro theory and a macro theory, a theory of value, price, and profit at both levels.*

The second, and perhaps most important, idea missing from Milanovic’s and Moseley’s interpretations of Marx’s approach is critique. Both authors proceed as if Marx developed his own theory of labor value, instead of seeing it as a critique of the classicals’ theory of value (which, we must remember, is the sub-title of Capital, “A Critique of Political Economy”). In my view, Marx begins where the classicals leave off (with an “immense accumulation of commodities,” Adam Smith’s wealth of nations) and then shows how the production of wealth in a capitalist society involves the performance, appropriation, and distribution of surplus labor.

That’s Marx’s class critique of political economy, which pertains as much to the mainstream economics of our time as to his.

 

*I don’t have the space here to explain how, for any individual commodity, the amount of value embodied during the course of its production won’t generally be equal to the amount of value for which the commodity exchanges. It is conceptually important that individual commodities have both numbers—value and exchange-value—attached to them, especially when they are not quantitatively equal at the micro level. It speaks to the fact that surplus-value is both appropriated (by capitalists from workers, through exploitation) and redistributed (among capitalists, within and across industries).