The distribution of income in the United States is increasingly unequal. We all know that. The problem is, the more we focus on the unequal distribution of income, the more we’re forced to discuss the issue of class.
And that’s a real problem for mainstream economists, who either deny the existence of inequality or deny its connection to class.
That’s the only way of explaining why Jason Furman repeats, in two recent papers (“Global Lessons for Inclusive Growth” [pdf] and, with Peter Orszag, “A Firm-Level Perspective on the Role of Rents in the Rise in Inequality [pdf]), the same argument:
Overall, the 9 percentage-point increase in the share of income of the top 1 percent in the World Top Income Database data from 1970 to 2010 is accounted for by: increased inequality within labor income (68 percent), increased inequality within capital income (32 percent), and a shift in income from labor to capital (0 percent).
In other words, for mainstream economists like Furman who actually do pay attention to rising inequality (e.g., as measured by the share of income going to the top 1 percent), it can’t have anything to do with class (e.g., as measured by changing labor and capital shares).
As it turns out, I’m presenting Marx’s critique of the so-called Trinity Formula in one of my courses this week.* Basically, Marx argued that, if the value of commodities is equal to constant capital plus variable capital plus surplus-value, then both the “profit share” (the “profits of enterprise” plus “interest”) and the “rental share” (“ground rent”) represent distributions of surplus-value. In other words, productive labor—not independent factor services—creates, via exploitation, the incomes of both capitalists and landlords.
Marx’s critique of the Trinity Formula is still relevant today because, even if we assume (as many mainstream economists still do, against all evidence) that wage and profit shares are relatively constant, it’s still possible to show that the rate of exploitation has risen.
Consider the following hypothetical chart:
The blue and red boxes represent profits and wages in 1997 and 2007. However, as we can see, the share of income going to CEOs has risen (Furman’s “increased inequality within labor income”). If we combine profits and CEO salaries as different forms of surplus-value, then indeed it is possible for the rate of exploitation to have risen—even if the conventional measure of profit and wage shares remains the same.
In terms of actual national income data, what we’d want to do is add to corporate profits the distributions of the surplus that go to those at the top (including CEO salaries) in order to to get “capital’s share” and subtract those same distributions from wages to get “labor’s share.”
As it turns out, Olivier Giovannoni [pdf] has made something like the latter calculation, by subtracting top 1 percent incomes from the total U.S. labor share. As we can see in the chart above, the real labor share in the United States has fallen dramatically since 1970—from about 77 percent to less than 60 percent—just as it has in Europe and Japan.
The only appropriate conclusion is that the increasingly unequal distribution of income in the United States has a lot to do with the diverging movements of the labor and capital shares, and therefore with class changes in the U.S. economy. And the only way to deal with that problem—that class problem—is not by increasing tax rates at the top or by raising minimum wages, but by eliminating the problem itself: the exploitation of labor by capital.
*For the uninitiated, the Trinity Formula is the classical idea that the “natural price” of commodities is equal to the summation of the natural rates of wages, profit, and rent, that is, the idea that the incomes of workers, capitalists, and landlords are independent of one another. The same idea was later articulated by neoclassical economists, who argue that each “factor of production” receives its marginal contribution to production.