Archive for May, 2017

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Emily Badger is right:

The new White House budget proposal is built on a deep-rooted conservative belief: The government should help those who are willing to work, and cull from benefit rolls those who aren’t.

But it’s also a deep-rooted liberal belief. Lest we forget, it was Bill Clinton who signed the original let-them-work-or-starve welfare reform in 1996 (two years after signing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the largest crime bill in history).*

As I argued back in March,

liberals and conservatives agree on very little these days, especially now that we find ourselves in the era of Donald Trump. But they do seem to find common ground on one thing: the so-called dignity of labor.

Basically, liberals and conservatives have long shared the view that government programs should be redesigned to make sure people—especially the members of the working-class, white, black, and Hispanic—are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to someone else.

Donald Trump’s first budget is merely the latest proposal to implement this view, held by liberals and conservatives alike.

 

*In general, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, work requirements have done little to reduce poverty, and in some cases, they push families deeper into it:

Work requirements rest on the assumption that disadvantaged individuals will work only if they’re forced to do so, despite the intensive efforts that many poor individuals and families put into working at low-wage jobs that offer unpredictable hours and schedules and don’t pay enough for them to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads without public assistance of some kind.  Too many disadvantaged individuals want to work but can’t find jobs for reasons that work requirements don’t solve:  they lack the skills or work experience that employers want, they lack child care assistance, they lack the social connections that would help them identify job openings and get hired, or they have criminal records or have other personal challenges that keep employers from hiring them.  In addition, when parents can’t meet work requirements, their children can end up in highly stressful, unstable situations that can negatively affect their health and their prospects for upward mobility and long-term success.

 

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Back in graduate school, I was a member of SUPE, Students United for Public Education. We conducted a study in which we showed that the very rich and seemingly private Harvard University received more public monies than our own poorly funded and very public University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

A new study, by Open Books (pdf), broadens that study by investigating the amount of public monies that are funneled to the eight Ivy League schools: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, Penn, and Brown.

The amount of taxpayer-funded payments and benefits—$41.59 billion over a six-year period (FY2010-FY2015)—is by itself extraordinary, more money ($4.31 billion) annually from the federal government than sixteen states.

But we’re also talking about universities whose endowment funds (in 2015) exceeded $119 billion, which is equivalent to nearly $2 million per undergraduate student. In FY2014, the balance sheet for all Ivy League colleges showed just under $195 billion in accumulated gross assets—equivalent to $3.35 million per undergraduate student. The Ivy League also employs 47 administrators who each earn more than $1 million per year (two executives each earned $20 million between 2010 and 2014). And, in a five-year period (2010-2014), the Ivy League spent $17.8 million on lobbying, which included issues mostly related to their endowment, federal contracting, immigration and student aid.

The bottom line is clear: Ivy League are nominally private universities that receive vast amounts of public financing, much more than the public colleges and universities that educate most students in the United States.

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I continue to maintain that Congressional Republicans will stick with President Donald Trump until they get their favorite policies enacted—or until Trump’s missteps and declining popularity stand in the way of their getting what they want.

And one of the things they want is tax reform—specifically, a cut in corporate taxes.

Here’s the problem: U.S. corporations aren’t taxed too heavily. They’re taxed too little.

As is clear from the chart above, corporate profits (as a percentage of GDP) have risen dramatically since the mid-1980s—from 5.8 percent in 1985 to 11.8 percent in 2016.

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However, as I have shown before, even while individual taxes have remained relatively high (as a percentage of federal tax receipts), taxes on corporate income fell throughout the postwar period and have remained relatively low (at about 10 percent federal tax receipts) since the mid-1980s.

Here’s what the Economic Policy Institute recommends in a recent report:

If we wish to reform corporate tax policy to benefit the vast majority of Americans—and not just a wealthy few—we should not be talking about lowering corporate tax rates or offering other tax breaks to corporations; we should instead be focusing on closing loopholes in the system that have eroded the corporate income tax base, to ensure the corporate sector is paying its appropriate share of taxes.

I don’t have strong views about the idea of “platform capitalism,” the concept presented and elaborated in a recent book by Nick Srnicek to make sense of the business model of such companies as Google, Amazon, and Uber. I don’t feel I have a dog in that hunt.

What I do like is Srnicek’s critique of other designations—such as tech companies, sharing, and the gig economy—and his focus on the idea that these are, after all, capitalist firms operating in a capitalist economy. Their raison d’être is to make a profit by centralizing and monopolizing access to data and selling data (or services based on those data) to other firms.

In fact, the notion of “platform capitalism” might be extended to other kinds of enterprises. I’m thinking, for example, of sports franchises and universities. They also operate as platforms inasmuch as they generate profits across a range of activities. Nominally, they produce and sell a commodity (e.g., a football match and higher education)—but that only serves as a pretext for generating profits in other activities: in the case of sports franchises, television revenues, shirts and other memorabilia, food and drink concessions, and so on; similarly, in the case of higher education, on-line courses, research-based fees and patents, food and lodging for students and visitors, branded clothing, and of course collegiate sports spectacles. In both cases, sports franchises and universities operate as diverse, profit-making platforms.

So, in my view, the idea of “platform capitalism” might be a useful way of thinking about at least some forms of capitalism that exist today.

What I find odd, though, is some of the commentary on Srnicek’s work. Consider, for example, Daniel Little’s posing of the questions generated by the emergence of “platform capitalism”:

what after all is the source of value and wealth? And who has a valid claim on a share? What principles of justice should govern the distribution of the wealth of society? The labor theory of value had an answer to the question, but it is an answer that didn’t have a lot of validity in 1850 and has none today.

What Little seems not to understand is that the profits of the enterprises operating under the rubric of “platform capitalism” are still based on the surplus labor of workers who produce the commodities that are being sold. Uber, for example, manages to generate its profits by capturing the surplus of its drivers. It doesn’t own the vehicles and doesn’t directly employ the drivers (with all the associated costs savings) but, since it owns the platform that connects drivers to passengers, it secures a “right” to the surplus created by the drivers and paid for by the passengers. The other kinds of platforms analyzed by Srnicek have different ways of generating profits: by selling advertising based on information collected about users (e.g., Facebook and Google), by renting servers used to process data (e.g., Amazon), and so on. But in all these cases, workers are doing the job of writing and modifying software, collecting and processing data, building and maintaining servers, and supplying the ultimate services to other enterprises or final consumers who purchase the commodities. And the members of the boards of directors of platform capitalist enterprises are the ones who ultimately appropriate the surplus.

Capitalism has, of course, changed since the mid-nineteenth century. The technologies, the modes of employment of workers, the ways commodities are marketed and the role users play, the measuring and processing of data—all of those features of the capitalist mode of production have changed radically since industrial capitalism first emerged. But the basic logic—of capitalists and workers, of creating, appropriating, and distributing surplus labor in the form of surplus-value—is the same for capitalist enterprises today just as it was in 1850.

That’s why the Marxian critique of political economy, modified and updated for the twenty-first century, continues to be able to explain the “source of value and wealth”—including and perhaps especially “the soaring inequalities of income and wealth that capitalism has produced” in recent decades.