Posts Tagged ‘Adam Smith’

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From the very beginning, the area of mainstream economics devoted to Third World development has been imbued with a utopian impulse. The basic idea has been that traditional societies need to be transformed in order to pass through the various stages of growth and, if successful, they will eventually climb the ladder of progress and achieve modern economic and social development.

Perhaps the most famous theory of the stages of growth was elaborated by Walt Whitman Rostow in 1960, as an answer to the following questions:

Under what impulses did traditional, agricultural societies begin the process of their modernization? When and how did regular growth become a built-in feature of each society? What forces drove the process of sustained growth along and determined its contours? What common social and political features of the growth process may be discerned at each stage? What forces have determined relations between the more developed and less developed areas?

Rostow’s model postulated that economic growth occurs in a linear path through five basic stages, of varying length—from traditional society through take-off and finally into a mature stage of high mass consumption.

While Rostow’s model and much of mainstream development theory can trace its origins back to Adam Smith—through the emphasis on increasing productivity, the expansion of markets, and the definition of development as the growth in national income—the development models that were prevalent in the immediate postwar period presumed that the pre-conditions growth were not automatic, but would have to be engineered through government intervention and foreign aid.

Mainstream modernization theory was created in the 1950s—and thus after the first Great Depression and World War II, when world trade had been severely disrupted, and in the midst of decolonization and the rise of the Cold War, when socialism and communism were attractive alternatives to many of the national liberation movements in the Global South. It was a determined effort, on the part of academics and policymakers in the United States and Western Europe, to showcase capitalist development and make the economic and social changes necessary in the West’s former colonies to initiate the transition to modern economic growth.*

The presumption was that government intervention was required to disrupt the economic and social institutions of so-called traditional society, in order to chart a path through the necessary steps to shift the balance from agriculture to industry, create national markets, build the appropriate physical and social infrastructure, generate a domestic entrepreneurial class, and eventually raise the level of investment and employ modern technologies to increase productivity in both rural and urban areas.

That was the time of the Big Push, Unbalanced Growth, and Import-Substitution Industrialization. Only later, during the 1980s, was development economics transformed by the successful pushback from the neoclassical wing of mainstream economics and free-market policymakers. The new orthodoxy, often referred to as the Washington Consensus, focused on privatizing public enterprises, eliminating government regulations, and the freeing-up of trade and capital flows.

Throughout the postwar period, mirroring the debates in mainstream microeconomic and macroeconomic theory, mainstream development theory has oscillated back and forth—within and across countries—between more public, government-oriented and more private, free-market forms of mainstream development theory and policy. And, of course, the ever-shifting middle ground. In fact, the latest fads within mainstream development theory combine an interest in government programs with micro-level decision-making. One of them focuses on local experiments—using either the randomized-control-trials approach elaborated by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo or the Millenium Villages Project pioneered by Jeffrey Sachs, which they use to test and implement strategies so that impoverished people in the Third World can find their own way out of poverty. The other is the discovery of the importance of “good” institutions—for example, by Daron Acemoglu—especially the delineation and defense of private-property rights, so that Rostow’s modern entrepreneurs can, with public guarantees but minimal interference otherwise, be allowed to keep and utilize the proceeds of their private investments.

The debates among and between the various views within mainstream development economics have, of course, been intense. But underlying their sharp theoretical and policy-related differences has been a shared utopianism based on the idea that modern economic development is equivalent to and can be achieved as a result of the expansion of markets, the creation of a well-defined system of private property rights, and the growth of national income. In the end, it is the same utopianism that is both the premise and promise of a long line of contributions, from Smith’s Wealth of Nations through Rostow’s stages of growth to the experiments and institutions of today’s mainstream development economists.

The alternatives to mainstream development also have a utopian horizon, which is grounded in a ruthless criticism of the theory and practice of the “development industry.”

One part of that critique, pioneered by among others Arturo Escobar (e.g., in his Encountering Development), has taken on the whole edifice of western ideas that supported development, which he and other post-development thinkers and practitioners regard as a contradiction in terms.** For them, development has amounted to little more than the West’s convenient “discovery” of poverty in the third world for the purposes of reasserting its moral and cultural superiority in supposedly post-colonial times. Their view is that development has been, unavoidably, both an ideological export (something Rostow would willingly have admitted) and a simultaneous act of economic and cultural imperialism (a claim Rostow rejected). With its highly technocratic language and forthright deployment of particular norms and value judgements, it has also been a form of cultural imperialism that poor countries have had little means of declining politely. That has been true even as the development industry claimed to be improving on past practice—as it has moved from anti-poverty and pro-growth to pro-poor and basic human needs approaches. It continued to fall into the serious trap of imposing a linear, western modernizing agenda on others. For post-development thinkers the alternative to mainstream development emerges from creating space for “local agency” to assert itself. In practice, this has meant encouraging local communities and traditions rooted in local identities to address their own problems and criticizing any existing distortions—both economic and political, national as well as international—that limit peoples’ ability to imagine and create diverse paths of development.

The second moment of that critique challenges the notion—held by mainstream economists and often shared by post-development thinkers—that capitalism is the centered and centering essence of Third World development. Moreover, such a “capitalocentric” vision of the economy has served to weaken or limit a radical rethinking of and beyond development.*** One way out of this dilemma is to recognize class diversity and the specificity of economic practices that coexist in the Third World and to show how modernization interventions have, themselves, created a variety of noncapitalist (as well as capitalist) class structures, thereby adding to the diversity of the economic landscape rather than reducing it to homogeneity. This is a discursive strategy aimed at rereading the economy outside the hold of capitalocentrism. The second strategy opens up the economy to new possibilities by theorizing a range of different and potential connections among and between diverse class processes. This forms part of a political project that can perhaps articulate with both old and new social movements in order to create new subjectivities and forge new economic and social futures in the Third World.

The combination of post-development and class-based anti-capitalocentric thinking refuses the utopianism of Third World development, as it constitutes a different utopian horizon—a critique of the naturalizing and normalizing strategies that are central to mainstream development theory and practice in the world today. It therefore leads in a radically different direction: to make noncapitalist class processes and projects more visible, less “unrealistic,” as one step toward dethroning the “development industry” and invigorating an economic politics beyond development.

 

*At the same time, the Western Powers attempted to reconstruct the global institutions of capitalism, through the triumvirate of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (predecessor to the World Trade Organization) that was initially hammered out in 1944 in the Bretton-Woods Agreement.

**A short reading list for the post-development critique of mainstream development includes the following: Wolfgang Sachs, ed., The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge As Power (Zed, 1992); Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton, 1995); Gustavo Esteva et al., The Future of Development: A Radical Manifesto (Policy, 2013); and the recent special issue of Third World Quarterly (2017), “The Development Dictionary @25: Post-Development and Its Consequences.”

***Building on a feminist definition of phallocentrism, I along with J.K. Gibson-Graham (in “‘After’ Development: Reimagining Economy and Class,” an essay published in my Development and Globalization: A Marxian Class Analysis) identify capitalocentrism whenever noncapitalism is reduced to and seen merely as the same as, the opposite of, the complement to, or located inside capitalism itself.

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Donald Trump’s decision to impose import tariffs—on solar panels and washing machines now, and perhaps on steel and aluminum down the line—has once again opened up the war concerning international trade.

It’s not a trade war per se (although Trump’s free-trade opponents have invoked that specter, that the governments of other countries may retaliate with their import duties against U.S.-made products), but a battle over theories of international trade. And those different theories are related to—as they inform and are informed by—different utopian visions.

In one sense, Trump and his supporters are right. Capitalist free trade has destroyed cities, regions, livelihoods, and industries. The international trade deals the United States has signed in recent decades have been rigged for the wealthy and have cheated workers. They are replete with marketing scams, hustles, and shady deals, to the advantage of large corporations and a small group of individuals at the top.

But Trump, like all right-wing populists, as I explained recently, offers a utopian vision that looks backward, conjuring up and then offering a return to a time that is conceived to be better. For Trump, that time is the 1950s, when a much larger share of U.S. workers was employed in manufacturing and American industry successfully competed against businesses in other countries. The turn to import tariffs is a way of invoking that nostalgia, the selective vision of a utopia that was exceptional, in terms of both U.S. and world history, and that conveniently conceals or overlooks many other aspects of that lost time, such as worker exploitation, Jim Crow racism, and widespread patriarchy inside and outside households.

It should come as no surprise that mainstream economists, today and in a tradition that goes back to Adam Smith and David Ricardo, oppose Trump’s tariffs and hold firmly to the gospel of free international trade. Once again, Gregory Mankiw has stepped forward to articulate the neoclassical view (buttressed by classical antecedents) that everyone benefits from free international trade:

Ricardo used England and Portugal as an example. Even if Portugal was better than England at producing both wine and cloth, if Portugal had a larger advantage in wine production, Portugal should export wine and import cloth. Both nations would end up better off.

The same principle applies to people. Given his athletic prowess, Roger Federer may be able to mow his lawn faster than anyone else. But that does not mean he should mow his own lawn. The advantage he has playing tennis is far greater than he has mowing lawns. So, according to Ricardo (and common sense), Mr. Federer should hire a lawn service and spend more time on the court.

That’s the basis of neoclassical utopianism—the gains from trade: when international trade is unregulated, and every country specializes according to its comparative advantage, more commodities can be produced at a lower cost and as a result average living standards around the world are improved.

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Like Mankiw, most mainstream economists, who are the only ones represented in the IGM Economic Experts panel, oppose import tariffs (as seen in the chart above) and celebrate the utopianism of free international trade.

That’s true even among mainstream economists who have argued that, in reality, the causes and consequences of international trade may not coincide with the rosy picture produced within the usual textbook versions of neoclassical economic theory.

For example, Paul Krugman was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for his work demonstrating that the relative advantages most neoclassical economists take as given are in fact products of history. Thus, it is possible for countries to enhance their trade advantages (through creating internal economies of scale) by regulating international trade. But Krugman was also quick to belittle “a steady drumbeat of warnings about the threat that low-wage imports pose to U.S. living standards” and, then, in his first New York Times column, to denounce the critics of the World Trade Organization.

A few years later Paul Samuelson, widely recognized as the dean of modern mainstream economics, published an article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in which he challenged the presumed universal benefits of free trade. It is quite possible, Samuelson argued, that if enough higher-paying jobs were lost by American workers to outsourcing, then the gains from the cheaper prices may not compensate for the losses in U.S. purchasing power. In other words, the low wages at the big-box stores do not necessarily make up for their bargain prices. And then Samuelson was immediately taken to task by other mainstream economists, most notably Jagdish Bhagwati (along with his coauthors, Arvind Panagariya and T.N. Srinivasan [pdf]), who argued that “that outsourcing is fundamentally just a trade phenomenon [and] leads to gains from trade.”

Finally, Dani Rodrick, the mainstream economist who has been most critical of the role his colleagues have played as “cheerleaders” for capitalist globalization, still defends the standard models of international trade:

It has long been an unspoken rule of public engagement for economists that they should champion trade and not dwell too much on the fine print. This has produced a curious situation. The standard models of trade with which economists work typically yield sharp distributional effects: income losses by certain groups of producers or worker categories are the flip side of the “gains from trade.” And economists have long known that market failures – including poorly functioning labor markets, credit market imperfections, knowledge or environmental externalities, and monopolies – can interfere with reaping those gains.

But Rodrick, like Krugman, Samuelson, and other mainstream economists who have identified problems with the story told by Mankiw, Bhagwati, and other free-traders—who have “consistently minimized distributional concerns” and “overstated the magnitude of aggregate gains from trade deals”—still holds to the neoclassical utopianism that, with “all of the necessary distinctions and caveats,” more international trade can and should be promoted. Thus, as Rodrick argued just last week,

If our economic rules empower corporations and financial interests excessively, then the correct response is to rewrite those rules — at home as well as abroad. If trade agreements serve mainly to reshuffle income to capital and corporations, the answer is to rebalance them to make them friendlier to labor and society at large.

The goal is to make sure everyone, not just “corporations and financial interests,” benefits from international trade.

But recent criticisms of trade deals from within mainstream economics still don’t include the possibility that capitalism itself, with or without free international trade and multinational trade agreements, however the rules are written, privileges one class over another. Capital gains at the expense of workers because it is able to extract a surplus for literally doing nothing. That kind of social theft occurs—both when international trade is regulated and controlled and when it is allowed to operate free of any such interventions.

That’s why Karl Marx ironically came out in support of free trade in his famous speech to the Democratic Association of Brussels at its public meeting of 9 January 1848:

If the free-traders cannot understand how one nation can grow rich at the expense of another, we need not wonder, since these same gentlemen also refuse to understand how within one country one class can enrich itself at the expense of another.

Do not imagine, gentlemen, that in criticizing freedom of trade we have the least intention of defending the system of protection.

One may declare oneself an enemy of the constitutional regime without declaring oneself a friend of the ancient regime.

Moreover, the protectionist system is nothing but a means of establishing large-scale industry in any given country, that is to say, of making it dependent upon the world market, and from the moment that dependence upon the world market is established, there is already more or less dependence upon free trade. Besides this, the protective system helps to develop free trade competition within a country. Hence we see that in countries where the bourgeoisie is beginning to make itself felt as a class, in Germany for example, it makes great efforts to obtain protective duties. They serve the bourgeoisie as weapons against feudalism and absolute government, as a means for the concentration of its own powers and for the realization of free trade within the same country.

But, in general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favor of free trade.

That’s because Marx’s critique of political economy embodied a utopian horizon radically different from the utopianism of classical and neoclassical economics. He sought to transform economic and social institutions in order to eliminate capitalist exploitation. And if free trade was the quickest way of getting to the point when workers revolted and changed the system, then he would vote against protectionism and in favor of free trade.

As it turns out, as Friedrich Engels explained forty years later, both protectionism and free trade serve, in different ways, to produce more capitalist producers and thus to produce more wage-laborers. In our own time, Trump’s protective tariffs may do that in the United States, just as free trade has accomplished that in other countries that have increased their exports to the United States.

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But neither protectionism nor free trade can succeed in undoing the “elephant curve” of global inequality, which in recent decades has shifted the fortunes of workers in the United States and Western Europe and those in “emerging” countries and still left all of them falling further and further behind the top 1 percent in their own countries and globally.

Reversing that trend is a goal, a utopian horizon, worth fighting for.

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And the Republican Congress. . .

The premise and promise of the House and Senate versions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act are that lower corporate taxes will lead to increased investment and thus more jobs and higher wages for American workers.

Marx, it seems, would have endorsed the idea:

Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets! “Industry furnishes the material which saving accumulates.” Therefore, save, save, i.e., reconvert the greatest possible portion of surplus-value, or surplus-product into capital! Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake: by this formula classical economy expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie, and did not for a single instant deceive itself over the birth-throes of wealth. But what avails lamentation in the face of historical necessity? If to classical economy, the proletarian is but a machine for the production of surplus-value; on the other hand, the capitalist is in its eyes only a machine for the conversion of this surplus-value into additional capital. Political Economy takes the historical function of the capitalist in bitter earnest.

Except for one thing (as Bruce Norton has explained): Marx never presumed capitalists would follow any kind of fixed rule, including using their surplus-value to accumulate capital. That’s only what the mainstream economists of his day—classical political economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo—attributed to, or at least hoped from, capitalists. They’re the ones who thought capitalists had a “historical mission” of accumulating capital.

As I explained to students in class yesterday, you only get the accumulation of more capital out of corporate tax cuts if you assume everything else constant.

Consider, for example, the general law of capitalist accumulation:

K* = r – λ

where K* is the rate of capital accumulation (∆K/K), r is the rate of profit (surplus-value divided by the sum of constant and variable capital, s/[c+v]), and λ is the rate of all other distributions of surplus-value (including taxes to the state, CEO salaries, stock buybacks, dividends to stockholders, payments to money-lenders, and so on).

So, yes, if you hold everything else constant, corporate tax cuts, and thus a lower λ, will lead to a higher K*.

But that only works if everything else is held constant. If capitalists choose to use the tax cuts to increase CEO salaries, stock buybacks, and/or dividends to stockholders, then all bets are off. The Tax Cuts part of the act will not lead to the Jobs part of the act.

And even if capitalists do use some portion of the tax cuts to accumulate capital, that will only result in new jobs if technology is held constant. However, if they use it to invest in newer constant capital (e.g., automation and other labor-displacing technologies), then again we’ll see few if any new jobs.

And even if and when new jobs are created, the effect on workers’ wages will depend on the Reserve Army of Unemployed, Underemployed, and Low-Wage workers.

Clearly, there are lots of hidden steps and assumptions between slashing corporate taxes and more jobs.

That’s why Donald Trump and House and Senate Republicans have decided not to even attempt to justify the tax cuts but only to ram it through Congress in the shortest possible time.

They pretend they’re taking “the historical function of the capitalist in bitter earnest” but, in the end, they’re just attempting to line their benefactors’ pockets.

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Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations makes for uncomfortable reading these days. That’s because, as my students this semester have learned, the father of modern mainstream economics—who has become so closely (and mistakenly) identified with the invisible hand—held a narrow theory of money and advocated extensive regulation of the banking sector.

This is contrast to the obscene growth of banking in recent decades, which Rana Foroohar observes “isn’t serving us, we’re serving it.”

According to Smith, the “judicious operations of banking” did nothing more than convert dead stock into active and productive stock—”into stock which produces something to the country.”

The gold and silver money which circulates in any country may very properly be compared to a highway, which, while it circulates and carries to market all the grass and corn of the country, produces itself not a single pile of either. The judicious operations of banking, by providing, if I may be allowed so violent a metaphor, a sort of waggon-way through the air, enable the country to convert, as it were, a great part of its highways into good pastures and corn-fields, and thereby to increase very considerably the annual produce of its land and labour.

Moreover, Smith also argued, banks were susceptible to speculative crises. Thus, even in his system of “natural liberty,” the banking sector needed to be regulated, in order to lessen the likelihood of such crises and to minimize the suffering of the poor when they did happen.

To restrain private people, it may be said, from receiving in payment the promissory notes of a banker, for any sum whether great or small, when they themselves are willing to receive them, or to restrain a banker from issuing such notes, when all his neighbours are willing to accept of them, is a manifest violation of that natural liberty which it is the proper business of law not to infringe, but to support. Such regulations may, no doubt, be considered as in some respects a violation of natural liberty. But those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments, of the most free as well as of the most despotical. The obligation of building party walls, in order to prevent the communication of fire, is a violation of natural liberty exactly of the same kind with the regulations of the banking trade which are here proposed.

Those warnings and regulations, of course, disappeared from contemporary mainstream economics—even as the financial sector continued to increase in size and significance within the U.S. economy.

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Today, financial profits (the blue line in the chart above) represent more than a quarter of total corporate profits in the United States, although the financial sector provides only 4.3 percent of American jobs (the red line in the chart).

finance-profits inequality

Moreover, as the profits of the financial sector (the purple line in the chart above) have grown—reaching still another record high of more than $500 billion in 2016—the distribution of wealth has become more and more unequal—such that, in 2016, the share of total wealth owned by the top 1 percent (the green line in the chart) was more than 37 percent.

And it’s not just the financial sector. As Forohoor explains, corporations outside the banking sector are copying the spectacularly successful model:

Nonfinancial firms as a whole now get five times the revenue from purely financial activities as they did in the 1980s. Stock buybacks artificially drive up the price of corporate shares, enriching the C-suite. Airlines can make more hedging oil prices than selling coach seats. Drug companies spend as much time tax optimizing as they do worrying about which new compound to research. The largest Silicon Valley firms now use a good chunk of their spare cash to underwrite bond offerings the same way Goldman Sachs might.

The fact is, financial wheeling and dealing has—after a brief interlude—returned as the tail that wags the economic dog in the United States. It manages to capture an outsized share of profits, even as it creates increased instability and obscene levels of inequality.

It should be clear to all that finance has been fundamentally transformed since Smith’s day, from a highway that was supposed to serve us into a master that we serve.

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Hans Haacke, “The Invisible Hand of the Market” (2009)

Mainstream economists have attempted to model and disseminate the idea of the invisible hand, especially in their textbooks.*

And, not surprisingly, many others—from heterodox economists to artists—have challenged the whole notion of the invisible hand.

But one of the best critiques of the invisible hand I have encountered can be found in Kim Stanley Robinson’s story, “Mutt and Jeff Push the Button” (which appears in Fredric Jameson’s recent book, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army).

Here’s a longish extract:

“So, we live in a money economy where everything is grossly underpriced, except for rich people’s compensation, but that’s not the main problem. The main problem is we’ve agreed to let the market set prices.”

“The invisible hand.”

“Right. Sellers offer goods and services, buyers buy them, and in the flux of supply and demand the price gets determined. That’s the cumulative equilibrium, and its prices change as supply and demand change. It’s crowdsourced, it’s democratic, it’s the market.”

“The only way.”

“Right. But it’s always, always wrong. Its prices are always too low, and so the world is fucked. We’re in a mass extinction event, the climate is cooked, there’s a food panic, everything you’re not reading in the news.”

“All because of the market.”

“Exactly. It’s not just there are market failures. It’s the market is a failure.”

“How so, what do you mean?”

“I mean the cumulative equilibrium underprices everything. Things and services are sold for less than it costs to make them.”

“That sounds like the road to bankruptcy.”

“It is, and lots of businesses do go bankrupt. But the ones that don’t haven’t actually made a profit, they’ve just gotten away with selling their thing for less than it cost to make it. They do that by hiding or ignoring some of the costs of making it. That’s what everyone does, because they’re under the huge pressure of market competition. They can’t be undersold or they’ll go out of business, because every buyer buys the cheapest version of whatever. So the sellers have to shove some of their production costs off their books. They can pay their labor less, of course. They’ve done that, so labor is one cost they don’t pay. That’s why we’re broke. Then raw materials, they hide the costs of obtaining them, also the costs of turning them into stuff. Then they don’t pay for the infrastructure they use to get their stuff to market, and they don’t pay for the wastes they dump in the air and water and ground. Finally they put a price on their good or service that’s about 10 percent of what it really cost to make, and buyers buy it at that price. The seller shows a profit, shareholder value goes up, the executives take their bonuses and leave to do it again somewhere else, or retire to their mansion island. Meanwhile the biosphere and the workers who made the stuff, also all the generations to come, they take the hidden costs right in the teeth.”

 

*As I have discussed before, the invisible hand is a powerful metaphor “for which neoclassical economists have worked very hard to invent a tradition beginning with Adam Smith.” Smith himself only used the term twice in his published writings—once in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and again in The Wealth of Nations—and never to refer to a self-equilibrating market system, which is the way the term is used by mainstream economists today.

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Every economic theory includes—or, at least, is haunted by—the distinction between productive and unproductive labor. The distinction serves as the basis of all their major claims, from the most basic theory of value to the conception of who deserves what within capitalism.

The distinction began with the French Physiocrats, especially François Quesnay, who in his 1758 Tableau Économique made a distinction between the “Productive” Class (which consisted of agricultural producers) and two other groups: the “Proprietary” class (which consisted of only landowners) and the “Sterile” class (which was made up of artisans and merchants). The idea was that all new value was created only by agricultural producers, not by industry or commerce.

It was then picked up by Adam Smith, who criticized the Physiocrats for overlooking the important contribution of manufacturing to the wealth of nations. While Smith broadened the concept of productive labor (to include both agriculture and industry), he retained the notion of unproductive labor (especially the “menial servants” he worried industrial capitalists would waste their profits on, thus undermining their “historic mission” to accumulate capital).

Karl Marx, in his critique of Smith, took over the distinction between productive and unproductive labor but then transformed it. For him, labor was productive to the extent that it produced surplus-value; all other labor (e.g., the labor of corporate managers as well as that of personal servants) was considered unproductive labor.*

Neoclassical economists, for their part, sought to abolish the distinction between productive and unproductive labor, based on the idea that any labor (when combined with physical capital and land) that contributes to a nation’s wealth should be considered productive.**

And, of course, there’s John Maynard Keynes, who, after the crash of 1929 and in the midst of the first Great Depression, referred to the “rentier,” the “functionless investor,” who contributed nothing but was still able to capture returns based on the scarcity of capital. Keynes therefore imagined a time when, with the aid of the state, capital would become abundant, which would mean “the euthanasia of the rentier, and, consequently, the euthanasia of the cumulative oppressive power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity-value of capital.”

This brief survey of the history of economic thought is just a prelude to Branko Milanovic’s response to Ricardo Hausmann’s invoking of the distinction between productive and unproductive labor (in saying, with reference to Venezuela, “This is the crazy thing about the system. A lot of people are putting in effort [to buy the goods and resell them], and none of that increases the supply of anything. This is perfectly unproductive labor.”):***

That statement made me stop. “Perfectly unproductive labor”? But that “unproductive labor”, as every economist knows, improves the allocation of goods. The goods flow toward those who have greater ability to pay and since we tend to associate greater ability to pay with greater utility, the goods, thanks to bachaqueros’ activities, are better allocated. If one argues that bachaqueros activity is unproductive because it “does not increase the supply of anything” then one should argue that the activity of any trade or intermediation is unproductive because it does not produce new goods, but simple reallocates. The same argument could be used for the entire financial sector, starting with Wall Street. The entire activity of Wall Street has not produced a single pound of flour, a single loaf of bread or a single sofa. But why we believe that financial intermediation is productive is that it allows money to flow from the places where it would be less efficiently used to the places where it would be used more efficiently. Or for that matter from the consumers who cannot pay much to the consumers who can. Exactly the activity done bybachaqueros.

Milanovic is right: if “bachaqueros” are unproductive, why isn’t the labor of the financial sector? Or, more generally, of FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate)? Or of CEOs and other corporate managers?

That’s exactly the reason neoclassical economists generally don’t make a distinction between productive and unproductive labor. They want to see it all as productive: manufacturing, services, commerce, and finance; factory workers, office workers, and CEOs. The difference, in Hausmann’s case, is he wants to criticize the socialist economic policies of the Venezuelan government. So, the veil falls and even he, against the dictates of his own economic theory, invokes the distinction between productive and unproductive labor.

But once that door is open, who knows what ideas might follow? What happens if we begin to conceive of many kinds of labor and whole groups of economic agents within contemporary capitalism not only as unproductive, but as parasitical and even downright destructive?

 

*But note, because this point is often missed, Marx is not making a distinction between goods and services. Both can and often do involve productive labor.

An actor, for example, or even a clown, according to this definition, is a productive labourer if he works in the service of a capitalist (an entrepreneur) to whom he returns more labour than he receives from him in the form of wages; while a jobbing tailor who comes to the capitalist’s house and patches his trousers for him, producing a mere use-value for him, is an unproductive labourer.  The former’s labour is exchanged with capital, the latter’s with revenue.  The former’s labour produces a surplus-value; in the latter’s, revenue is consumed.

**However, there are forms of labor—such as that performed in households—that are not included in the usual neoclassical-inspired national-income accounts. One can argue, then, that neoclassical economics does retain some notion of unproductive labor.

***Hausmann, a former minister of planning of Venezuela and former Chief Economist of the Inter-American Development Bank, currently Professor of the Practice of Economic Development at Harvard University (where he is also Director of the Center for International Development) views Venezuela as “the poster child of the perils of rejecting economic fundamentals”—because the Venezuelan government has had the temerity to attempt to achieve economic and social goals by sidestepping and regulating “the market.”

HNWI-gone

It’s the beginning of the semester and so, in Topics in Political Economy, we’re starting with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

One of the first topics of discussion was Smith’s distinction between productive and unproductive labor. On the very first page, he invokes the difference between the two forms of labor as one of the key factors determining the amount of wealth (what today we refer to as GDP per capita):

According therefore, as this produce, or what is purchased with it, bears a greater or smaller proportion to the number of those who are to consume it, the nation will be better or worse supplied with all the necessaries and conveniencies for which it has occasion.
But this proportion must in every nation be regulated by two different circumstances; first by the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which its labour is generally applied; and, secondly, by the proportion between the number of those who are employed in useful labour, and that of those who are not so employed. Whatever be the soil, climate, or extent of territory of any particular nation, the abundance or scantiness of its annual supply must, in that particular situation, depend upon those two circumstances.

Smith returns to the issue in Book 2:

There is one sort of labour which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed: there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labour. Thus the labour of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit. The labour of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing.

As I explained to the students, Smith was worried about the extent to which national income, especially the surplus, was used to expand the number of productive laborers (the “labor of the manufacturer”) or, alternatively, consumed by wealthy individuals in the form of unproductive labor (“menial servants”). The former would increase the wealth of nations; the latter would not.* The contemporary example I used was the productive labor utilized in producing goods and services vs. luxury expenditures on art and real estate.**

The students (at least some of them) didn’t buy it.

I suspect at least part of their suspicion of the distinction was their prior training in neoclassical economics, in which the distinction between productive and unproductive labor was dissolved (and which, in recent years, finds neoclassical economists attempting to define the productiveness of the labor involved in FIRE—finance, insurance, and real estate).***

What Smith and contemporary neoclassical economists agree on is both a definition of and a focus on economic growth. It’s a key part of the legitimacy of the “pact with the devil” that is central to capitalism. Wealthy individuals (and the corporations they own and on whose boards of directors they sit) get control of the surplus but they have to use it to employ the population and provide for their “necessaries and conveniencies.” If they don’t, and use it instead to purchase art, real estate, and other luxury goods, they put into question the legitimacy of that pact.

In recent years, economic growth has been very slow. But 1-percent incomes and their luxury consumption are growing, while median household incomes and workers’ wages are stagnant.

That’s a situation that would have worried Smith.

*Marx took over the distinction between productive and unproductive labor from Smith but then transformed it. For him, labor was productive to the extent that it produced surplus-value; all other labor (e.g., the labor of corporate managers as well as that of personal servants) was unproductive labor.

**According to Laurence D. Fink, the chairman of BlackRock Inc. (the world’s largest asset manager),

“The two greatest stores of wealth internationally today is contemporary art….. and I don’t mean that as a joke, I mean that as a serious asset class,” said Fink. “And two, the other store of wealth today is apartments in Manhattan, apartments in Vancouver, in London.”

***Their suspicion might also be influenced by a belief in trickledown economics, that is, the idea that whatever investments and purchases wealthy individuals make will eventually trickle down to the mass of workers.