Posts Tagged ‘capital’



First, it was conspicuous consumption. Then, it was conspicuous philanthropy. Now, apparently, it’s conspicuous productivity.

According to Ben Tarnoff,

the acquisition of insanely expensive commodities isn’t the only way that modern elites project power. More recently, another form of status display has emerged. In the new Gilded Age, identifying oneself as a member of the ruling class doesn’t just require conspicuous consumption. It requires conspicuous production.

If conspicuous consumption involves the worship of luxury, conspicuous production involves the worship of labor. It isn’t about how much you spend. It’s about how hard you work.

And that makes a lot of sense, for at least two reasons. First, CEO salaries in the United States continue to be much higher than average workers’ pay—276 times as much in 2015. CEOs need to publicize the long hours they work in order to attempt to justify the large gap between what they take home and what they pay their workers. As Tarnoff explains, “In an era of extreme inequality, elites need to demonstrate to themselves and others that they deserve to own orders of magnitude more wealth than everyone else.”


The problem, of course, is many American workers are working long hours these days. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015, employed persons ages 25 to 54, who lived in households with children under 18, spent an average of 8.8 hours working or in work-related activities and the rest sleeping (7.8 hours), doing leisure and sports activities (2.6 hours), and caring for others, including children (1.2 hours ).


And, on a weekly basis (taking into account public holidays, annual leaves, and so on), U.S. workers put in almost 25 percent more hours—or about an hour more per workday—than Europeans.


The other reason why conspicuous productivity matters is because, in comparison to the First Gilded Age (when Thorstein Veblen first invented the term conspicuous consumption), a larger share of the surplus captured by the top 1 percent takes the form of labor income during the Second Gilded Age. They get—and deserve—that large and growing share because they work long hours.

The problem, of course, as I showed the other day, that composition of income has changed since 2000. Since then, the capital share of their income has bounced back. Thus, the “working rich” of the late-twentieth century are increasingly living off their capital income, or are in the process of being replaced by their offspring who are living off their inheritances.

This was my conclusion:

It looks then as if those at the top have either turned into or been replaced by rentiers, thus joining the existing owners of capital at the very top—thereby mirroring, after a short interruption, the structure of inequality last seen during the first Gilded Age.

That’s perhaps why conspicuous productivity was invented. Increasingly, those at the top are able to capture a large share of the surplus not because they do, but because they own. But if they can hide that by boasting about the long hours they work, they can attempt to defend their class power.

Or so they hope. . .


Who’s running away with the surplus, those at the top or those at the very top?

In a new study on “income inequality in the 21st century,” Fatih Guvenen and Greg Kaplan note that recent increases in inequality in the United States need to be understood in terms of trends of and, especially, within the top 1 percent. That’s particularly true when, instead of using Social Security data (which capture labor income), they turn to Internal Revenue data (which capture all forms of income).

While I agree with Guvenen and Kaplan that historically there have been significant differences between the incomes of the top 1 percent and the top 0.1 percent—those at the top and those at the very top—in my view, they tend to exaggerate the differences and lose sight of the fact that the two groups have become one.

Clearly, as can be seen in the chart above (based on data from Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman), the average income of those in the top tenth of one percent has risen much more than that of the top one percent. From 1979 to 2014, the average income of those at the very top has risen 277 percent compared to an increase of 183 percent for those at the top. But, of course, the average incomes of both groups have soared compared to that of the bottom 90 percent, which has increased only 27 percent over the same period.

And while they’re right, the rise in capital income much more than labor income helps explain the rising share of income of those at the very top, especially in recent decades, the fact is both groups—whether in the form of labor or capital income—have managed to capture a rising share of the surplus.

Where do those incomes come from?

The following two charts illustrate the composition of incomes of the top 1 percent and top 0.1 percent, respectively.



One way of making sense of the way those at the top and those at the very top manage to capture a portion of the surplus is by distinguishing between a labor component (in various shades of blue in both charts) and a capital component (in shades of green). When added together, the two components represent the total share of national income that goes to the top 1 percent (which rose from 11.1 to 20.2 percent) and the top 0.1 percent (which rose from 3.9 to 9.3 percent) between 1979 and 2014.

The labor component comprises two categories: employee compensation (e.g., payments to CEOs and executives in finance) and the labor part of noncorporate business profits (e.g, partnerships and sole proprietorships). Capital income can be similarly decomposed into various categories: interest paid to pension and insurance funds, net interest, corporate profits, noncorporate profits, and housing rents (net of mortgages).

As can be seen in the top chart above, by 2014 the top 1 percent derived over half of their incomes from capital-related sources. In earlier decades, from the late-1970s to the late-1990s, a much larger share of their income came from labor sources. They were the so-called “working rich.” This process culminated in 2000 when the capital share in top 1 percent incomes reached a low point of 49.4 percent. Since then, however, it has bounced back—to 58.6 percent in 2014. Thus, the “working rich” of the late-twentieth century are increasingly living off their capital income, or are in the process of being replaced by their offspring who are living off their inheritances.

Much the same trend, in an even exaggerated fashion, is true of those at the very top, the top 0.1% (in the lower chart). More than half of their income has always come from capital-related sources. They were never the “working rich”; they were always for the most part “coupon clippers.” The share of their income from capital-related sources was already 60 percent in 1979 and continued to grow (to 63 percent) by 2014.

What this means, in general terms, is the growth of inequality over decades is due to the ability of those at the top and those at the very top to capture a large portion of the growing surplus. But there has also been a change in the nature of that inequality in recent years, at least for those at the top—which is not due to escalating wage inequality, but to a boom in income from the ownership of stocks and bonds. They’ve now joined the ranks of the “coupon clippers,” who are able to use their accumulated wealth to get their share of the surplus.

It looks then as if those at the top have either turned into or been replaced by rentiers, thus joining the existing owners of capital at the very top—thereby mirroring, after a short interruption, the structure of inequality last seen during the first Gilded Age.

Mainstream economists argue that time makes money. According to the Austrians, production takes time, because of “roundabout” methods, which creates the additional value that flows to capital. Neoclassical economists have a different theory: the return to capital is the reward for savings created by time-deferred consumption. However, in both cases, time is the basis of the value that is captured as profits.*

In Cosmopolis, the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo (adapted for the cinema by David Cronenberg in 2012), Erik Packer’s “chief of theory,” Vija Kinski, explains they have it backwards:

“Money makes time. It used to be the other way around. Clock time accelerated the rise of capitalism. People stopped thinking about eternity. They began to concentrate on hours, measurable hours, man-hours, using labor more efficiently.”. . .

“Because time is a corporate asset now. It belongs to the free market system. The present is harder to find. It is being sucked out of the world to make way for the future of uncontrolled markets and huge investment potential. The future becomes insistent. This is why something will happen soon, maybe today,” she said, looking slyly into her hands. “To correct the acceleration of time. Bring nature back to normal, more or less.”

DeLillo (via Kinski), as it turns out, is right—at least when it comes to healthcare in the United States.

According to a series of reports in the most recent issue of the British medical journal The Lancet (confirming the results of a study I wrote about last year), increasing inequality means wealthy Americans can now expect to live up to 15 years longer than their poor counterparts.

As economic inequality in the USA has deepened, so too has inequality in health. Almost every chronic condition, from stroke to heart disease and arthritis, follows a predictable pattern of rising prevalence with declining income. The life expectancy gap between rich and poor Americans has been widening since the 1970s, with the difference between the richest and poorest 1% now standing at 10.1 years for women and 14.6 years for men.

The obscenely unequal distribution of income and wealth in the United States is responsible for increasingly unequal health outcomes.**

In addition, both structural racism (the “systematic and interconnected web of institutions and factors that lead to adverse health outcomes”) and mass incarceration (on prisoners, their families, and their communities), according to two other studies, exacerbate class-based health inequalities.

While the authors of one of the studies argue that “the health-care system could soften the effects of economic inequality by delivering high-quality care to all,” they conclude that the U.S. system falls “far short of this ideal.” That’s because disparities in access to care—based on income, race, and unequal rates of imprisonment—are far wider in the United States than in other wealthy countries.

Moreover, according to another study, even after the Affordable Care Act’s coverage expansion, twenty-seven million Americans remain uninsured and, even for many with insurance, access to affordable care remains elusive. At the same time, unneeded and even harmful medical interventions remain common (due, in part, to the fragmented health-care delivery system), corporate administration consumes nearly a third of health spending, and wealthy Americans consume a disproportionate and rising share of medical resources.

Thus, the editors of the series conclude,

Although a Series about health published in a medical journal may seem far removed from the political arena where much of the decision making about how to address these factors lies, the message of this collection of papers transcends that distance. . .it is no radical statement to say that Americans deserve better and, most importantly, the time for action has arrived.

It is time, in other words, to make the necessary changes so that money is available to provide decent healthcare for all Americans.


*One neoclassical economist, the late Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow (pdf), did have the intellectual honesty to admit that the absence of future markets represented a severe shortcoming of capitalism, a coordination failure, and supported the case for a socialist economy.

**The authors also note that the medical system in the United States itself influences inequality, as an employer of nearly 17 million Americans. Although physicians and nurses are generally well paid, many other health-care workers are not:

The health-care system employs more than 20% of all black female workers; more than a quarter of these health-care workers subsist on family incomes below 150% of the poverty line, and 12.9% of them are uninsured.

wage share

It’s obvious to anyone who looks at the numbers that the wage share of national income is historically low. And it’s been falling for decades now, since 1970.

Before that, during the short Golden Age of U.S. capitalism, the presumption was that the share of national income going to labor was and would remain relatively stable, hovering around 50 percent. But then it started to fall, and now (as of 2015) stands at 43 percent.

That’s a precipitous drop for a supposedly stable share of the total amount produced by workers, especially as productivity rose dramatically during that same period.

The question is, what has caused that decline in the labor share?

The latest story proffered by mainstream economists (such as David Autor and his coauthors) has to do with “superstar” firms:

From manufacturing to retailing, giant companies have managed to gobble up a larger and larger share of the market.

While such concentration has resulted in enormous profits for investors and owners of behemoths like Facebook, Google and Amazon, this type of “winner take most” competition may not be so good for workers as a whole. Over the last 30 years, their share of the total income kitty has been eroding. And the industries where concentration is the greatest is where labor’s share has dropped the most. . .

Think about the retail sector, where mom-and-pop stores once crowded the landscape. Now it is dominated by a handful of giants like Walmart, Target and Costco.

It is true, industry concentration has increased dramatically in recent decades (as I explain here). And the wage share has declined (as illustrated in the chart above).

Here’s the problem: exactly the opposite argument is the one that prevailed in the United States for the earlier period. Economists at the time argued that American workers earned a relatively high share of national income because they worked in concentrated industries, such as cars and steel. Thus, their collectively bargained wages included a portion of the “monopoly rents” captured by the firms within those industries.

Now that the wage share has clearly fallen, and shows no signs of returning to its previous levels, economists have changed their story. In their view, market concentration leads to a lower, not higher, wage share.

Why has there been such an about-face in economists’ story about the causes of the declining wage share?

What all the existing stories share is that they avoid identifying anything that has been done to workers as a class. Whether the story is about technological change, globalization, or now superstar firms, the idea is that there are larger forces that unwittingly have created winners and losers—and the losers, if they want, need to acquire the education and skills to join the winners. But don’t touch the basic elements of the economic system that has created such disparate and divergent outcomes.

As it turns out, the presumed rule of a stable wage share turns out to have been an illusion, an exceptional period of relatively short duration during which workers’ wages did in fact rise along with productivity. That wasn’t the case before, and it hasn’t been true since.

The actual rule, as it turns out, is that the wage share falls, as the rate of exploitation increases. That’s how capitalism works, at least much of the time—through periods of faster and slower technological change, higher or lower levels of globalization, more or less concentrated industries.

Sure, under a particular set of postwar conditions in the United States, for two and a half decades or so, the wage share remained relatively stable (and not without pitched battles between capital and labor, as Richard McIntyre and Michael Hillard have shown). But that ended decades ago, and since then workers have been forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work under conditions that, even as productivity continued to grow, the wage share itself declined.

Mainstream economists have finally recognized the fact that workers’ share of national income has been failing. But they continue to formulate stories that deflect attention from the real problem, the relative immiseration of workers that has them falling further and further behind.


It comes as no surprise, at least to most of us, that corporations are getting larger and increasing their share in many different industries. We see it everyday—when we buy plane tickets or try to take out a loan or just make a purchase at a retail store.

We know it. And now, it seems, economists and the business press have finally taken notice.

According to recent research by Gustavo Grullon, Yelena Larkin, and Roni Michaely,

More than 75% of US industries have experienced an increase in concentration levels over the last two decades. Firms in industries with the largest increases in product market concentration have enjoyed higher profit margins, positive abnormal stock returns, and more profitable M&A deals, which suggests that market power is becoming an important source of value. In real terms, the average publicly-traded firm is three times larger today than it was twenty years ago.

That’s right. As Figures 1-A and 1-B above show, the level of concentration (measured by the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index) has been steadily increasing over the course of the past twenty years, together with a decrease in the number of public firms.


And the average size of firms, as shown in Figure 1-C, has also been growing.

The business press may have changed the language—they like to refer to such corporations as “superstar firms”—but the problem remains the same: corporations are growing larger, both absolutely and relative to the industries in which they operate.

What mainstream economists and the business press won’t acknowledge is those tendencies have existed since capitalism began. The neoclassical fantasy of perfect competition was only ever that, a fantasy.

Certainly one mid-nineteenth-century critic of both mainstream economic theory and capitalism understood that:

Every individual capital is a larger or smaller concentration of means of production, with a corresponding command over a larger or smaller labour-army. Every accumulation becomes the means of new accumulation. With the increasing mass of wealth which functions as capital, accumulation increases the concentration of that wealth in the hands of individual capitalists, and thereby widens the basis of production on a large scale and of the specific methods of capitalist production. The growth of social capital is effected by the growth of many individual capitals. All other circumstances remaining the same, individual capitals, and with them the concentration of the means of production, increase in such proportion as they form aliquot parts of the total social capital. At the same time portions of the original capitals disengage themselves and function as new independent capitals. Besides other causes, the division of property, within capitalist families, plays a great part in this. With the accumulation of capital, therefore, the number of capitalists grows to a greater or less extent. Two points characterise this kind of concentration which grows directly out of, or rather is identical with, accumulation. First: The increasing concentration of the social means of production in the hands of individual capitalists is, other things remaining equal, limited by the degree of increase of social wealth. Second: The part of social capital domiciled in each particular sphere of production is divided among many capitalists who face one another as independent commodity-producers competing with each other. Accumulation and the concentration accompanying it are, therefore, not only scattered over many points, but the increase of each functioning capital is thwarted by the formation of new and the sub-division of old capitals. Accumulation, therefore, presents itself on the one hand as increasing concentration of the means of production, and of the command over labour; on the other, as repulsion of many individual capitals one from another.

This splitting-up of the total social capital into many individual capitals or the repulsion of its fractions one from another, is counteracted by their attraction. This last does not mean that simple concentration of the means of production and of the command over labour, which is identical with accumulation. It is concentration of capitals already formed, destruction of their individual independence, expropriation of capitalist by capitalist, transformation of many small into few large capitals. This process differs from the former in this, that it only presupposes a change in the distribution of capital already to hand, and functioning; its field of action is therefore not limited by the absolute growth of social wealth, by the absolute limits of accumulation. Capital grows in one place to a huge mass in a single hand, because it has in another place been lost by many. This is centralisation proper, as distinct from accumulation and concentration.

Those of us who have actually read that text are not at all surprised by the contemporary reemergence of the concentration and centralization of capital. We have long understood that the forces of competition within capitalism create both the incentive and the means for individual firms to grow in size and to drive out other firms, thus leading to the concentration of capital. The availability of large amounts of credit and finance only makes those tendencies stronger.

And the limit?

In a given society the limit would be reached only when the entire social capital was united in the hands of either a single capitalist or a single capitalist company.


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.


Mainstream economists and economic commentators continue to invoke the so-called “dignity of work” to criticize the idea of a universal basic income.

It’s an argument I’ve dealt with before (e.g., here and here). As I see it, there’s nothing necessarily dignified about most people being forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a tiny group of employers. The idea may be intrinsic to capitalism—but that doesn’t mean it contributes to the dignity of people who work for a living, especially when they have no control over how they work or what they produce when they work.

Matt Bruenig, to his credit, suggests an alternative argument against the critics of a universal basic income:

these writers dislike the fact that a UBI would deliver individuals income in a way that is divorced from working. Such an income arrangement would, it is argued, lead to meaninglessness, social dysfunction, and resentment.

One obvious problem with this analysis is that passive income — income divorced from work — already exists.

Bruenig is making a distinction between income related to work and income that comes from other sources—passive or not-work—which represents a fundamental divide within contemporary society.

As is clear from the data in the chart above, very little of the income (15 percent in 2014) of the bottom 90 percent of Americans stems from not-work (and, even then, most of their apparently not-work income is actually related to previous work, in the form of pension incomes). However, for the tiny group at the top, most of their income (59 percent for the top 1 percent, 75 percent for the top 0.01 percent) is related to not-working (and, of course, most of their work-related income is based on sole proprietorships and elevated executive salaries). In other words, most of their income represents a claim on the extra work performed by others.

So, when critics of a universal basic income rely on the “dignity of work” argument, what they’re really doing is reinforcing the idea that most people can and should derive dignity from working for a small group of employers. At the same time, critics are presuming there’s no loss of dignity for the tiny group at the top, those who have managed to capture most of their income from sources related not to their own work, but the work of everyone else.*

Where’s the dignity in that?

*Now, it’s true, as Noah Smith observes, “many rich people believe that investing constitutes work.” But spending a few minutes a day reading the business press and examining alternative investments does not constitute work—at least as most people understand what it means to work. Or are those rich people referring to the fact that they hire a whole host of other people, from financial advisors to accountants, to do the actual work of managing their not-work investments?