Archive for February, 2017

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Noah Smith is right about one thing: mainstream economists tend to use the word “capital” pretty loosely.

It just means “anything you can spend resources to build, which lasts a long time, and which also can be used to produce value.” That’s really broad. For example, it could include society itself. It also typically includes “human capital,” which refers to people’s skills, talents, and knowledge.

But then Smith proceeds, like the neoclassical equivalent of Humpty Dumpty, to make his definition of human capital the master—because, in his view, “it helps to convey some important truths about the world.”

Human capital, as I’ve explained in some detail before, is a profoundly misleading concept.

I don’t want to repeat those arguments here. But I do want to make two additional points.

First, if Smith wants to invoke human capital to say “education and skills are a form of wealth,” then why not include other ways people are able to earn more or less than their counterparts? Why not, for example, go beyond his reference to credentials (he has a Stanford degree) and intellectual abilities (apparently, he can do math well and write well) and refer to some of the other important ways people are sorted out within existing economic relations. I’m thinking of such things as gender, race and ethnicity, immigration status, and so on. They’re all ways workers are able to receive more or less income that have nothing to do with the effort they put into their jobs. Does Smith want to argue that masculinity, whiteness, and native birth are forms of human capital?

No, I didn’t think so.

Second, there’s the issue of capital itself. When capital is treated as a thing (which is what one finds in Smith’s account, as in most versions of mainstream economics), then it’s possible to forget about or overlook the historical and social conditions necessary for those things to operate as capital. Buildings, machinery, and raw materials, robots and computer software, even skills, talents, and knowledge—they only operate as capital within particular economic relations. Only when workers are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers, only then does capital become a means to extract surplus labor from those workers. Once appropriated, that surplus labor then assumes a variety of different, seemingly independent forms—from capitalist profits to land rents, including payments to merchants and finance, the super-profits of oligopolies, taxes to the state, and, yes, the salaries of CEOs and supervisors.

But those payments are not “returns” to independent forms of capital, human or otherwise. They’re all distributions of the surplus-value that both presume and produce the conditions under which laborers work not for themselves, but for their capitalist employers.

They, and not the various meanings neoclassical economists attribute to capital, are the real masters.

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Posted: 27 February 2017 in Uncategorized
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Setting aside enough of the surplus to support workers who have retired is one of the basic tasks any society faces.

Clearly, the United States is failing at that one simple task.

Yes, Americans do have Social Security. But, at an average monthly payment of $1,360 in 2017, it’s obviously not enough.

That’s why American workers are forced to have the freedom to come up with their own savings for retirement. And most are finding it difficult, if not impossible.

Overall, only one-third of American workers are saving anything in a workplace retirement account.

One reason is because, according to a recent study, only 2 out of 5 employees with access to 401(k)s and other defined-contribution retirement saving plans are actually using them. They simply aren’t being paid enough to buy what they need for themselves and their families and, at the same time, to put away money for retirement.

It’s no coincidence that the Census analysis found Americans with higher incomes were more likely to be socking money away for their old age. That dovetails with other data, such as the Federal Reserve’s annual survey on household finances, which found that almost 9 out of 10 Americans with more than $100,000 in annual income have a 401(k), compared with just four out of 10 earning less than $40,000.

The other reason is only 14 percent of companies actually offer these types of retirement plans, far lower than previous estimates.

The low percentage of employers that offer 401(k)s was especially noteworthy, [retirement specialist Arielle] O’Shea said, since previous estimates pegged the number at about 40 percent. “That is a significant problem,” she said.

Yes, indeed, that is a problem. Fourteen percent instead of 40 percent.*

The combined effect is that two-thirds of American workers are simply unable to save enough to fund their own retirements. They will have spent most of their lives working—and then they will struggle to stop working and enjoy their retirement.

Contrary to the advice of countless retirement specialists and politicians, who exhort American workers to tighten their belts and increase their savings, they’re not the ones who have failed. It’s a system that keeps workers’ pay in check and yet relies on their finding a way to accumulate individual savings—it’s that system that has failed American workers.

As I see it, the system that relies on individual decisions to save for retirement can’t be saved. Instead, it should be retired. And then replaced by the obvious alternative: transferring a portion of the growing surplus to workers when they retire. Such a system would be able to provide more generous benefits, starting at an earlier age—exactly what is need right now.

We can even give that system a name. Let’s call it Social Security 2.0.

 

*Now, it’s true, larger employers are more likely to offer 401(k)-style plans than smaller ones. So, 79 percent of Americans do in fact work at places that sponsor retirement plans. The problem is just 41 percent of those workers are making contributions to such a plan—more than 20 points lower than previous estimates.

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