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If you watched the Downton Abbey Season 5 finale, you will have seen the elaborately staged grouse shoot:

The bird shooting party is an extraordinary example of what life is like for these fortunate silver-spooners. They have helpers to clean their guns and prepare their guns. They have helpers to carry their guns to the field and to quickly reload for them after they shoot. They have helpers to beat the bushes and scare the birds into flight above their heads. And once the birds have been shot out of the air they have dogs to retrieve them from the fields.

Anything else we can do for you, chaps? Why yes. Once the unlucky birds are brought back to the house, it’s up to Mrs. Patmore and the cooks to clean and prepare them and serve them up as a delicious dinner. It’s amazing how much you can get done when everyone else does it for you. That’s a secret the rich have always tried to keep to themselves.

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As it turns out, those scenes are a good way of understanding the mechanisms behind James Kwak’s chart of wealth distribution in the United States:

Imagine all the families in the United States lined up from left to right along the X-axis, from poorest to richest; the red line shows the total value of (almost) everything they own, minus their debts. All household wealth is represented by the area under the red line. The problem with understanding this picture, however, is that the red line is indistinguishable from zero for the vast majority of the population—all the wealth is crammed into the right-hand part of the chart.

Indeed! Those at the very top today have figured out what those who lived upstairs in Downton Abbey knew almost a century ago: it’s amazing how much wealth you can come to own when everyone else creates it but ends up owning very little of it.

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As I noted a few days ago (in discussing the notion of human capital), the concept of capital has undergone an extraordinary redefinition and expansion in recent years. Now, in the work of mainstream economists, it has come to refer to, in addition to physical capital, human, social, intellectual, and many other forms of capital.

What’s going on?

My sense is that, whereas capital traditionally referred to the property of capitalists—and thus their claim on some portion of new value created in the form of profits—it now means something very different: any stock that can be accumulated over time to yield an income (or at least, as in the case of housing, a flow of benefits). One interpretation, then, is we’re being moved by this reimagining of capital further and further away from any notion of class (such as implied by the differences between capital and labor and the accumulation of capital by and for the benefit of a tiny minority in society). But there is, I think, a somewhat different interpretation: we’re still obsessed by class (perhaps even more than before) and, precisely because of that, the mainstream project is to turn all of us into capitalists, with the shared goal of accumulating and managing our individual portfolios of various forms of capital.

Income share by labor and corps to 2011

It is perhaps not a coincidence that capital is being redefined and expanded precisely when the “capital share”—that is, the share of national income going to corporate profits—has reached record highs (not coincidentally, just as the wage share is at a record low) and some (such as Thomas Piketty and sympathetic readers) are expressing a worry that current trends in the unequal distribution of wealth may, if they continue, represent a return to the réntier incomes and inherited wealth characteristic of “patrimonial capitalism.”

So, capital is still a problem that haunts economics.

The problem of capital can be traced back to the first texts of modern economics. While I don’t have the space here to present a full history of economic thought, it is important to note that, for Adam Smith, the stock of physical capital played an important role in creating the wealth of nations. But, at the same time, Smith worried that capitalists might not carry out their “historical mission” of accumulating capital—if, for example, they chose to divert some of their profits to other uses, such as luxury consumption. David Ricardo, too, worried about the capitalists’ mission—if, with continual growth, the declining fertility of land under cultivation meant that rent on the land cut into profits and thus slowed the process of accumulation. Marx, of course, challenged both the classicals’ definition of capital—preferring to see it as a social relationship, rather than a thing—and their worry that the accumulation of capital (in the form of c and v, constant and variable capital) would slow as a result of exogenous events—because, for Marx, the problems were endogenous, as capital itself created obstacles to smooth and continuous accumulation. Even in early neoclassical growth theory (for example, in the Solow model), capital carried the hint of class, as it still had to be accumulated by a small group of investors—with the caveat, of course, that labor also stood to benefit as a result of more jobs and a higher marginal productivity.

But that previous class dimension of capital seems to have radically changed with the proliferation of new, expanded notions of capital.

This issue of capital came up as I was reading the commentaries on Piketty’s book that were delivered in a session at the recent American Economic Association meetings. All of the respondents—mainstream economists of various hues and stripes—took issue with Piketty’s definition and measurement of wealth. However, let me for the sake of this post, focus on one of them, by David Weil [pdf]. Weil’s view is that, in addition to productive capital (the K one finds, alongside labor, in the usual neoclassical production function), capital should also include two other forms of wealth: human capital and “transfer wealth.” In his hands, labor income is now transformed into another kind of return on capital, the result of which is that a portion of national income (his calculations indicate 38 percent) represents a payment for education above and beyond “brute” labor. Human capital has the additional advantage, for mainstream economists like Weil, that it is more equally distributed (“there is a limit to how much human capital even the richest parent can cram into the head of his or her child”) than physical or financial capital. And then there are the Social Security payments workers rely on as retirement income. Weil also wants to treat them as capital, as a “transfer wealth.” He does acknowledge potential objections (“Ownership of transfer wealth conveys no control rights, and it can’t be sold or borrowed against, although it is not clear that these characteristics would be very valuable to those who hold it. Because it is annuitized, transfer wealth does not pass on to heirs, and so it is certainly true it affects the dynamics of inequality differently than market wealth.”) but then, impressed with the “gross size of these transfer claims,” Weil proceeds to treat them as a form of individual wealth—instead of as a social claim by one group of former workers on the surplus being created by existing workers.

The proliferation of these notions moves capital further and further away from its previous associations, in one way or another, with class and the process of producing, capturing, and utilizing the surplus in the form of capitalist profits. That’s one of the effects of redefining capital and imagining that wages and Social Security represent different returns on capital.

At the same time, the new forms of capital continue to be haunted by the issue of class, precisely in the insistence that everyone—not just capitalists—owns some and that forms such as human capital and “transfer wealth” are more equitably distributed than traditional (physical and financial) capital. In other words, mainstream economists’ attempts to redefine and expand what we mean by capital still carry the whiff of a claim on net income that is something above and beyond what laborers receive by exchanging their ability to work for a wage.

The problem, of course, is that the more capital is detached from the traditional role of the capitalist—to serve as “a machine for the conversion of this surplus-value into additional capital”—the more it calls into question the idea that the class of capitalists serves any particular role at all in today’s society. This is a problem that, of course, has reinforced by the onset and enduring legacy of the most severe crisis since the First Great Depression.

In this sense, the proliferation of new forms of capital—in the midst of the growing inequality that both caused and is now the consequence of the Second Great Depression—merely serves to remind us of the antithesis between the character of wealth as socially produced and privately captured. That is the real problem with capital that simply can’t be solved within the existing economic institutions.

 

*This illustration was produced by the Capital Drawing Group.

 

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economic segregation

It is not just that the economic divide in America has grown wider; it’s that the rich and poor effectively occupy different worlds, even when they live in the same cities and metros.

That’s the conclusion of a new study by Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander [pdf]. What they do is construct an index of economic segregation based on three variables—income, education, and occupation—which are themselves highly correlated.

The ten large metropoles with the highest values on the Overall Economic Segregation Index are Austin, Columbus, San Antonio, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Memphis. When the listed is expanded to cover all metro areas, a number of college towns rise to the top: Tallahassee (home to Florida State University) jumps to first place and Trenton-Ewing (Princeton University) to second, while Austin falls to third. Tucson (University of Arizona) and Ann Arbor (University of Michigan) also make the list, along with Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk.

The least segregated large metropoles include Orlando, Portland, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Providence, and Virginia Beach. Rustbelt metros like Cincinnati, Rochester, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh also have relatively low levels of overall economic segregation.

Another notable finding is that economic segregation tends to be more intensive in high-tech, knowledge-based metropolitan areas. It is positively correlated with high-tech industry, the “creative class” share of the workforce, and the share of college graduates. In other words, the so-called new economy is less a cure and more a cause of the new levels of class segregation in urban America.

And the implication of their analysis?

Where cities and neighborhoods once mixed different kinds of people together, they are now becoming more homogenous and segregated by income, education, and occupation. Separating across these three key dimensions of socio-economic class, this bigger sort threatens to undermine the essential role that cities have played as incubators of innovation, creativity, and economic progress.

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While mainstream economists continue to discuss and debate their favorite topics—when to hike interest rates, the appropriate measure of capital, how to apply monetary rules, the outcome of debt negotiations in Europe, and much else—they never mention one obvious fact: capitalism kills. In particular, it kills babies and middle-aged people.

According to Alice Chen, Emily Oster, and Heidi Williams [pdf], capitalism kills babies. The United States, for example, ranks fifty-first in the world in infant mortality—comparable to Croatia, despite an almost three-fold difference in income per capita. But, as it turns out, it’s not differences at birth that explain the low ranking of the United States; it’s the high rate of postneonatal deaths. And that high rate (e.g., in comparison to Finland and Austria in the authors’ study) is “due entirely, or almost entirely, to high mortality among less advantaged groups. Well-off individuals in all three countries have similar infant mortality rates.” In other words, the high level of infant deaths in the United States are almost entirely a consequence of the grotesque levels of economic inequality that capitalism has created within the United States.

We also have to admit that capitalism kills middle-aged people. In a study recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Katherine A. Hempstead and Julie A. Phillips found that suicide rates among middle-aged men and women in the United States have been increasing since 1999, with a sharp escalation since 2007. Their conclusion is that

Relative to other age groups, a larger and increasing proportion of middle-aged suicides have circumstances associated with job, financial, or legal distress and are completed using suffocation. The sharpest increase in external circumstances appears to be temporally related to the worst years of the Great Recession, consistent with other work showing a link between deteriorating economic conditions and suicide.

What’s the old adage, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? Well, in this case, preventing neonatal deaths and middle-aged suicides should start with eliminating capitalism.

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