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General views of Seattle-based grafitti artists Jonathan Matas and Zach Rockstad's mural called "Up and Down" depicting Karl Marx and Adam Smith located on Mott Street just north of Houston Street in

Mainstream economists refer to it as price theory, everyone else value theory. But whatever it’s called, it’s at the center of economists’ differing explanations of what happens in (and alongside) markets.

As I see it, price/value theory serves as the framework to explain a wide range of phenomena, from how and for how much commodities are exchanged in markets through the determinants of the distribution of incomes to the outcomes—for the economy and society as a whole—of the allocation of resources and commodities through markets.

And each price/value theory has a utopian dimension. It’s not just an accounting for and an explanation of the conditions and consequences of commodity exchange; it’s also a way of thinking about the fairness and justice of markets. It therefore informs (and is informed by) a utopian horizon within and beyond markets.

Let me explain. Mainstream economists today generally rely on a price theory that has been produced, disseminated, and revised by neoclassical economists in a tradition that dates from the late-nineteenth century. Students know it as what they learn in the typical microeconomics course, the rest of us by the celebration of free markets in mainstream theory and policy.*

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The starting point of neoclassical value theory is that commodities exchange on markets at a price (p*) that is determined by supply and demand.** But that’s only the beginning. According to neoclassical economists, supply and demand are ultimately determined by human nature—a combination of tastes and preferences (utility), know-how (technology), and resources (factor endowments)—which are taken as given or exogenous.

And that leads to one of the major conclusions of neoclassical theory: the prices of goods and services, as well as the distribution of income, are ultimately determined by—and therefore reflect—human nature. That’s important because, if for whatever reason you don’t like the existing set of prices of commodities or the distribution of income, you face the formidable task of changing human nature.

Other significant conclusions also follow from neoclassical price theory, including:

  • Everyone gets what they pay for (since price is equal to the ratio of marginal utilities).
  • Everyone is equal (since, via the invisible hand, everyone’s marginal rate of substitution is equal to that of everyone else).
  • Everyone benefits from markets (since utility-maximation and profit-maximization lead to Pareto efficiency, i.e., a situation in which no one can be made better off without making someone worse off).

That’s an extraordinary set of conclusions—about commodities, markets, and capitalism—which is why, as I explain to my students, so much theoretical work has to be done to go from the initial assumptions to the final results.

That set of conclusions is the basis of the utopianism of neoclassical price theory.  According to neoclassical economists, the capitalist distribution of income is fundamentally fair. If every factor of production (e.g., capital and labor) is remunerated according to its marginal contribution to production, and each individual sells to firms the amount of each factor they desire (because of utility-maximization), the resulting distribution represents “just deserts.” It’s fair on an individual level and it represents justice for society as a whole. Let free markets operate, without any external intervention (e.g., by the state), and the result will be both fair and just.

It’s that powerful conclusion that serves as the starting point for value theory, the critique of the core of mainstream economics—with, of course, very different results.

Take the case of Marxian value theory. Marxian economists accept the notions of fairness and justice, a standard upheld by mainstream economists, and then shows that commodities and markets can’t but fail to achieve those goals. They do this, first, by showing that every commodity has two numbers attached to it—exchange-value and value—not just the one—price—and showing how those two numbers are equal only under a very particular set of assumptions. Then, second, they demonstrate that, even if the two numbers are equal (such that the form of value in exchange equals the value of commodities in production), the production of commodities is based on a “social theft,” that is, the exploitation of workers.

Here’s the idea: assume that all commodities exchange at their values (that is, the kind of world—of free markets, private property, perfect information, and so on—presumed by mainstream economists). Labor power, too, is allowed to be bought and sold at its value. But after the value of labor power is realized in exchange and is set to work, more value is extracted than it costs employers to purchase it. In other words, an extra value—a surplus-value—is created by laborers (during the course of production) and appropriated by capitalists (and then realized, when the finished commodities are sold, in exchange).

My view is that the critique of capitalist class exploitation forms the utopian horizon of Marxian value theory. Since exploitation violates the social norms of fairness and justice (of “just deserts,” i.e., that everyone within capitalism gets what they deserve), it points in a quite different direction: the possibility of creating the economic and social conditions whereby exploitation is eliminated.

The differences between neoclassical price theory and Marxian value theory couldn’t be more stark. The differences are even more dramatic when we compare their utopian horizons. Whereas neoclassical price theory leads to a utopian celebration of capitalist markets, Marxian value theory both informs and is informed by a utopian critique of capitalist exploitation—and therefore a movement beyond capitalism.

In both cases—neoclassical price and Marxian value theory—the story about commodity exchange, and therefore the analysis of the form that wealth takes under capitalism, has a utopian dimension. The two theories have that in common. Where they differ is the form that utopian dimension takes. Neoclassical price theory is guided by a utopianism according to which free markets and private property represent the best possible way of organizing an economy—and therefore should be created and defended by any means necessary. Marxian value theory, as I interpret it, serves as a critique of all such utopianisms. It marks their failure, on their own terms, and points in a different direction—toward the possibility (but certainly not the necessity) of eliminating the exploitation that serves as the basis of capitalist wealth, and therefore of creating a different standard of fairness and justice.

As is well known, for generations of Marxian economists that utopian horizon has been summarized as “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”

 

*To be clear, modern neoclassical price theory extends some important aspects of the theory originally elaborated by Adam Smith—such as the focus on individuals and the general praise for free markets—but it also represents a fundamental break from Smith’s theory—especially from the classical labor theory of value Smith and other classical economists (such as David Ricardo) utilized.

**It’s actually a pretty complicated set of steps, which most students are never taught. The key is that p*, the equilibrium price, is determined not just by supply and demand, but by the imposition of a third condition—a market-clearing equation—such that the quantity supplied is arbitrarily assumed to be equal to the quantity demanded.

 

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The economic crises that came to a head in 2008 and the massive response—by the U.S. government and corporations themselves—reshaped the world we live in.* Although sectors of the U.S. economy are still in one of their longest expansions, most people recognize that the recovery has been profoundly uneven and the economic gains have not been fairly distributed.

The question is, what has changed—and, equally significant, what hasn’t—during the past decade?

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Let’s start with U.S. stock markets, which over the course of less than 18 months, from October 2007 to March 2009, dropped by more than half. And since then? As is clear from the chart above, stocks (as measured by the Dow Jones Composite Average) have rebounded spectacularly, quadrupling in value (until the most recent sell-off). One of the reasons behind the extraordinary bull market has been monetary policy, which through normal means and extraordinary measures has transferred debt and put a great deal of inexpensive money in the hands of banks, corporations, and wealth investors.

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The other major reason is that corporate profits have recovered, also in spectacular fashion. As illustrated in the chart above, corporate profits (before tax, without adjustments) have climbed almost 250 percent from their low in the third quarter of 2008. Profits are, of course, a signal to investors that their stocks will likely rise in value. Moreover, increased profits allow corporations themselves to buy back a portion of their stocks. Finally, wealthy individuals, who have managed to capture a large share of the growing surplus appropriated by corporations, have had a growing mountain of cash to speculate on stocks.

Clearly, the United States has experienced a profit-led recovery during the past decade, which is both a cause and a consequence of the stock-market bubble.

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The crash and the Second Great Depression, characterized by the much-publicized failures of large financial institutions such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, raised a number of concerns about the rise in U.S. bank asset concentration that started in the 1990s. Today, as can be seen in the chart above, those concentration ratios (the 3-bank ratio in purple, the 5-bank ratio in green) are even higher. The top three are JPMorgan Chase (which acquired Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual), Bank of America (which purchased Merrill Lynch), and Wells Fargo (which took over Wachovia, North Coast Surety Insurance Services, and Merlin Securities), followed by Citigroup (which has managed to survive both a partial nationalization and a series of failed stress tests), and Goldman Sachs (which managed to borrow heavily, on the order of $782 billion in 2008 and 2009, from the Federal Reserve). At the end of 2015 (the last year for which data are available), the 5 largest “Too Big to Fail” banks held nearly half (46.5 percent) of the total of U.S. bank assets.

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Moreover, in the Trump administration as in the previous two, the revolving door between Wall Street and the entities in the federal government that are supposed to regulate Wall Street continues to spin. And spin. And spin.

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As for everyone else, they’ve barely seen a recovery. Real median household income in 2016 was only 1.5 percent higher than it was before the crash, in 2007.

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That’s because, even though the underemployment rate (the annual average rate of unemployed workers, marginally attached workers, and workers employed part-time for economic reasons as a percentage of the civilian labor force plus marginally attached workers, the blue line in the chart) has fallen in the past ten years, it is still very high—9.6 percent in 2016. In addition, the share of low-wage jobs (the percentage of jobs in occupations with median annual pay below the poverty threshold for a family of four, the orange line) remains stubbornly elevated (at 23.3 percent) and the wage share of national income (the green line) is still less than what it was in 2009 (at 43 percent)—and far below its postwar high (of 50.9 percent, in 1969).

Clearly, the recovery that corporations, Wall Street, and owners of stocks have engineered and enjoyed during the past 10 years has largely bypassed American workers.

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One of the consequences of the lopsided recovery is that the distribution of income—already obscenely unequal prior to the crash—has continued to worsen. By 2014 (the last year for which data are available), the share of pretax national income going to the top 1 percent had risen to 20.2 percent (from 19.9 percent in 2007), while that of the bottom 90 percent had fallen to 53 percent (from 54.2 percent in 2007). In other words, the rising income share of the top 1 percent mirrors the declining share of the bottom 90 percent of the distribution.

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The distribution of wealth in the United States is even more unequal. The top 1 percent held 38.6 percent of total household wealth in 2016, up from 33.7 percent in 2007, that of the next 9 percent more or less stable at 38.5 percent, while that of the bottom 90 percent had shrunk even further, from 28.6 percent to 22.8 percent.

So, back to my original question: what has—and has not—changed over the course of the past decade?

One area of the economy has clearly rebounded. Through their own efforts and with considerable help from the government, the stock market, corporate profits, Wall Street, and the income and wealth of the top 1 percent have all recovered from the crash. It’s certainly been their kind of recovery.

And they’ve recovered in large part because everyone else has been left behind. The vast majority of people, the American working-class, those who produce but don’t appropriate the surplus: they’ve been forced, within desperate and distressed circumstances, to shoulder the burden of a recovery they’ve had no say in directing and from which they’ve been mostly excluded.

The problem is, that makes the current recovery no different from the run-up to the crash itself—grotesque levels of inequality that fueled the bloated profits on both Main Street and Wall Street and a series of speculative asset bubbles. And the current recovery, far from correcting those tendencies, has made them even more obscene.

Thus, ten years on, U.S. capitalism has created the conditions for renewed instability and another, dramatic crash.

 

*In a post last year, I called into question any attempt to precisely date the beginning of the crises.