Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’


source (pdf)

On one hand, Dave Elder-Vass is absolutely right: “we should see our economy not simply as a capitalist market system but as a collection of ‘many distinct but interconnected practices’.”*

As I have explained before, that view of the “iceberg economy”—which has been highlighted in the work of J. K. Gibson-Graham—represents a fundamental challenge to neoclassical economists, for whom

the entire economy is visible and consists of capitalist markets—or unwarranted constraints on capitalist markets, which should be eliminated. According to iceberg economists, capitalist markets are only the tip of the iceberg, and there’s a proliferation of noncapitalist economies below the waterline.

But Elder-Vass also uses it against Marxists who, in his view, see “one central mechanism in the economy: the extraction of surplus from wage labour by capitalists” and leave out ethical issues.

The problem is, while Elder-Vass credits J. K. Gibson-Graham, especially their book The End Of Capitalism (As We Knew It), with the idea that unified, totalizing metaphors of the economy (like a “capitalist market system”) can make it difficult to think outside the box and imagine alternatives, he forgets that Gibson-Graham themselves used the categories of the Marxian tradition—including the idea of class defined in terms of surplus labor—to decenter the economy.**

He also overlooks the fact that Gibson-Graham (as well as others who have worked with and alongside them in the larger Rethinking Marxism tradition) have insisted on the ethical dimensions of the Marxian critique of political economy—which includes, but of course is not limited to, a critique of the social theft associated with capitalist and all other forms of exploitation (that is, areas of the economy—whether capitalist, slave, feudal, and so on—in which those who perform surplus labor are excluded from appropriating their surplus labor).

In fact, according to two of Gibson-Graham’s close associates, Jack Amariglio and Yahya Madra, ethics are central to Marx’s critique of capitalism and mainstream economics.*** But Marx’s commitment to communism is not governed by an actual model or a fixed morality. Rather, they argue,

The ethical is embodied in Marx’s enduring faithfulness to sustaining a critical position toward the existing state of affairs, not in his particular and changing dismissals of capitalism or in his obscure, partial formulations of the shape communism might take. The lesson of Marx is that, facing the abyss of an unknown communism, the ethical is the will to risk a different social organization of surplus.

To put it in terms of the iceberg economy, the ethical is the will both to recognize the noncapitalist forms of economy below the waterline and to risk a different social organization in which capitalist exploitation ceases to be the exclusive or even predominant mode of appropriating and distributing the surplus.

Contrary to Elder-Vass, then, seeing the economy “not simply as a capitalist market system” is consistent with the Marxian critique of political economy, including the ethical stance that is informed by and embodied in that critique.


*I will try to be careful here because I have not yet had a chance to read Elder-Vass’s book,  Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy. I am relying, instead, on Daniel Little’s review of the book and Elder-Vass’s response.

**Gibson-Graham also borrowed from other traditions, such as feminism, queer theory, and poststructuralism to create their iceberg economy.

***See their entry on “Karl Marx” in the Handbook of Economics and Ethics, ed. J. Peil and I. van Staveren, 325-32 (Edward Elgar, 2009).


According to the norms of both neoclassical economic theory and capitalism itself, workers’ wages should increase at roughly the same rate as their productivity.* Clearly, in recent years they have not.

The chart above, which was produced by B. Ravikumar and Lin Shao for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, shows that labor compensation has grown slowly during the recovery of the U.S. economy from the 2007-09 recession. In fact, real labor compensation per hour in the nonfarm business sector was 0.5 percent lower 20 quarters after the start of the recovery, while labor productivity had increased by 6 percent.

Clearly, the gap between worker compensation and productivity has grown during the current recovery.


But the authors go even further, showing that the gap in the United States between compensation to workers and their productivity has been growing for decades.

labor productivity has been growing at a higher rate than labor compensation for more than 40 years. As Figure 3 shows, labor productivity in 2016:Q1 is 3.8 times as high as that in 1950:Q1; labor compensation, on the other hand, is only 2.7 times as high. In other words, the gap between labor productivity and compensation has been widening for the past four decades. The slower growth in labor compensation relative to labor productivity during the recovery from the two most recent recessions is part of this long-term trend. (reference omitted)

The data in Figure 3 show that the productivity-compensation gap—defined as labor productivity divided by labor compensation—has been increasing on average by approximately 0.9 percent per year since 1970:Q1. Based on this long-term trend, the gap would have been 51 percent higher in 2016:Q1 compared with 1970:Q1; in the data, the gap is actually 47 percent higher.

The fact is, labor compensation has failed to keep up with labor productivity after the Great Recession. But, as it turns out, there’s nothing unique about this period. The gap has been growing for more than four decades in the United States.**

Clearly, the recent and long-term trends of productivity and labor compensation challenge the norms of neoclassical economics and of capitalism itself. But we are also seeing the growth of another gap—between the promises of both neoclassical theory and capitalism and the reality workers have faced for decades now.


*Neoclassical economics—in particular, the marginal productivity theory of distribution—is based on the idea that the factors of production (land, labor, capital, and so on) receive in the form of income what they contribute to production. So, for example, as labor productivity increases, real wages should also rise. Similarly, capitalism is based on the idea of “just deserts.” That idea—that everyone gets what they deserve—is essential to the very idea of fairness or justice in the way the economy is currently organized.

**The authors’ analysis is based on the gap between labor compensation and productivity. If we look at real wages (as in the chart below) instead of compensation (which includes benefits, and therefore the portion of the surplus employers distribute to pension plans, healthcare insurers, and others), the gap is even larger.


According to my calculations from Fed data, since 1979, productivity has grown by 60 percent while real wages have increased by less than 5 percent.


I know, it sounds like the setup for a bad joke. But, for the authors of a recent Sanford Bernstein research report titled “The Silent Road to Serfdom: Why Passive Investing is Worse Than Marxism,” it’s a very serious matter.

Their argument is pretty straightforward (although the report itself, according to all accounts, is long and meandering): the rise of passive and quasi-passive asset management (e.g, exchange-traded funds that track major equity indexes, like the S&P 500 Index or the Russell 2000 Index, in addition to “smart beta” funds that invest based on historically predictive factors) are threatening to fundamentally undermine the entire system of capitalism.

Why? Because, in their view, the growth in such passive and algorithmic funds has caused markets to become more correlated, as all the funds are based on buying all the same stocks for the same reasons. And a market that is more correlated, they argue, will do a worse job of allocating capital.

The alternative are actively managed funds (with all their high fees and exorbitant profits and salaries), directed by analysts who are constantly thinking about whether companies are over- or underpriced, so that they can follow the price signals and buy the underpriced ones and sell the overpriced ones and keep capital flowing to its best possible uses.

So, the Sanford Bernstein team writes:

A supposedly capitalist economy where the only investment is passive is worse than either a centrally planned economy or an economy with active market led capital management.

Of course, the entire premise of their argument is that the buying and selling of stocks on Wall Street creates an efficient allocation of resources, which as I showed yesterday is a myth. Very few actively-managed mutual funds routinely outperform the market and, given the short time span (days, hours, and even microseconds), most Wall Street trading simply cannot affect the allocation of real resources.

But, to my mind, the rise of ETFs and other forms of passive and quasi-passive management is interesting for a very different reason. At the limit, they point toward the creation of a single, most efficient robot trader, which might actually solve the socialist calculation problem. In this sense, they threaten to displace all the Wall Street traders and analysts, just as the rise of credit and the joint-stock company rendered the capitalist superfluous to capitalist production.

So, perhaps the folks at Sanford Bernstein are right: passively managed stock funds represent Marx’s revenge on capitalism.


I have been arguing for some time on this blog that contemporary capitalism faces a profound legitimation crisis. It has failed to deliver on its promises, and therefore is being calling into question.

As it turns out, Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, has also sounded a warning about the ongoing legitimacy crisis. But for him it’s a bit different. The problem, as he sees it, is the tension between democracy and capitalism.

A natural connection exists between liberal democracy — the combination of universal suffrage with entrenched civil and personal rights — and capitalism, the right to buy and sell goods, services, capital and one’s own labour freely. They share the belief that people should make their own choices as individuals and as citizens. Democracy and capitalism share the assumption that people are entitled to exercise agency. Humans must be viewed as agents, not just as objects of other people’s power.

Yet it is also easy to identify tensions between democracy and capitalism. Democracy is egalitarian. Capitalism is inegalitarian, at least in terms of outcomes. If the economy flounders, the majority might choose authoritarianism, as in the 1930s. If economic outcomes become too unequal, the rich might turn democracy into plutocracy.

Historically, the rise of capitalism and the pressure for an ever-broader suffrage went together. This is why the richest countries are liberal democracies with, more or less, capitalist economies. Widely shared increases in real incomes played a vital part in legitimising capitalism and stabilising democracy. Today, however, capitalism is finding it far more difficult to generate such improvements in prosperity. On the contrary, the evidence is of growing inequality and slowing productivity growth. This poisonous brew makes democracy intolerant and capitalism illegitimate.

One can find plenty to pick apart in Wolf’s story, starting with the idea that there’s a “natural connection” between democracy and capitalism. There’s nothing natural about it, although clearly there is a historical relationship—complex, fragile, and contested—between democratic political structures and capitalist economies.

But Wolf does understand that today’s capitalism is global:

Left to themselves, capitalists will not limit their activities to any given jurisdiction. If opportunities are global so, too, will be their activities.

And while Wolf forgets or overlooks the fact that capitalism has been global from the very beginning, he demonstrates his awareness that the disappointing recent performance of global capitalism (“not least the shock of the financial crisis and its devastating effect on trust in the elites in charge of our political and economic arrangements”) has once again created tensions between capitalism and democracy. One source of tension is the rise of a global plutocracy (“and so in effect the end of national democracies”), the other is the rise or illiberal democracies or outright dictatorships (“in which the elected ruler exercises control over both the state and capitalists”).

Wolf is most worried about the danger to democracy, and therefore has come around to the view that the continued pursuit of international trade agreements (like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), which “tightly constrain national regulatory discretion in the interests of corporations,” needs to be curtailed and rethought.

The alternative, of course, is to safeguard and strengthen the future of democracy—in which, in Wolf’s words, economic policy can be “orientated towards promoting the interests of the many not the few”—by doing away with capitalism itself.


Special mention

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wealth shares

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We’ve been learning a great deal about the conditions and consequences of the obscene levels of inequality in the United States—now, in the past, and it seems for the foreseeable future.

Right now, inequality is escalating within public higher education, especially in research universities that are chasing both tuition revenues and rankings. Thus, the editorial board of the Badger Herald, the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin, found it necessary to criticize the lifting of the out-of-state student enrollment cap because it betrays the Wisconsin Idea and is making the university both “richer and whiter.”

Instead of increasing enrollment by targeting low-income and underrepresented Wisconsin students, UW now joins the ranks of public institutions that are happy with increasing the — already substantial — socioeconomic divide on campus. Making UW a bougie playground for the greater Chicagoland area is not the way to keep Wisconsin a world-class institution.

The Wisconsin students are right.* As recent research by Ozan Jaquette, Bradley R. Curs, and Julie R. Posselt confirms, public research universities are increasingly relying on tuition increases to fund their activities.** Thus, they are admitting more nonresident students—both for their out-of-state tuition payments and to raise the universities’ academic profile—and, as a result, the proportion of historically underrepresented students and especially of low-income students is declining. Moreover,

The shift towards nonresident students suggests that public research universities have increased the value they place on students who pay high tuition and have high test scores. This shift is indicative of a deeper change in organizational values, away from the public good emphasis on access and towards the self-interested emphases of academic profile and revenue generation. As scholars, campus leaders, or policymakers, we must ask ourselves, whether these are the values we want our flagship public institutions to promote?

We also need to look at the way inequality played out in American history, and make the appropriate connections to the present and future. In a recent paper, Suresh Naidu and Noam Yuchtman examine the situation of labor markets during the first Gilded Age. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that labor markets in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries are as close as we have seen in U.S. history to the unregulated labor market that is presumed and celebrated within neoclassical economics. But, the authors explain, those Gilded-Age labor markets were characterized by high levels of conflict—between labor movements and employer organizations (over wages and, when workers went on strike, replacement workers or scabs)—which, in turn, called on increased levels of judicial intervention as well as domestic policing and military intervention, generally on the side of the employers.***

And the implications for the United States, in the second Gilded Age:

Looking around today, it is obvious that inequality and conflict over the distribution of wealth and income remain salient a century after the first Gilded Age. History is never a perfect guide, but the late 19th century suggests that even as markets play a greater role in allocating labour, legal and political institutions will continue to shape bargaining power between firms and workers, and thus the division of rents within the firm. What remains to be determined – and battled over – is which institutions are empowered to act, and whose interests they will represent. Regardless, latent labour market conflict seems likely to be a prominent feature of our new Gilded Age.

Finally, what can we way about inequality looking forward? According to Robert Shiller, it “could become a nightmare in the decades ahead.”

The reason for this dire prognosis is that the structures that create high levels of inequality in the first place serve as barriers to policies that might actually lessen the amount of inequality. According to Angus Deaton, “Those who are doing well will organize to protect what they have, including in ways that benefit them at the expense of the majority.” Historically, the only exceptions in capitalist democracies emerge in times of war, “because war mobilization changed beliefs about tax fairness.”

And contra Robert Solow (“We are not good at large-scale redistribution of income”), capitalist societies have consistently shown to be very good at large-scale redistribution of income toward the top—just not particularly interested in moving in the opposite direction, in redistributing income to those at the bottom.

In fact, neither Shiller nor the nine other economists who contributed to a recent project on long-term forecasting “expressed optimism that inequality would be corrected in the future, and none of us ventured that any major economic policy was likely to counteract recent trends.”****

Shiller uses Satyajit Ray’s 1973 movie “Distant Thunder”—about the Bengal famine of 1942-43, when millions died, almost all from the lower classes—to illustrate our current dilemma. There was plenty of food in the Bengal Province of British India to keep everyone alive but “the food was not shared adequately.”*****

Systems of privilege and entitlement permitted hoarding of food by people of status whose lives went on much as usual, except that they had to brush off starving beggars and would occasionally see dead bodies on the street.

It’s clear that, today, there are plenty of goods—food, clothing, and shelter—to go around but they’re not being shared equally. Not by a long shot. The problem is, existing “systems of privilege and entitlement” permit the accumulation of wealth on one end and misery on the end—just as they did during the first Gilded Age and, unless things change, will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the lives of people of status go on much as usual, in their “bougie playground”—except they have to brush off the contemporary equivalent of starving beggars and occasionally see the analogy today of dead bodies on the street.


*It should perhaps come as no surprise that a prominent mainstream economist, Rebecca Blank, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2013, is the one who sought (and won) an end to the cap on out-of-state and international students.

**As Stephanie Saul reports,

According to the College Board, the average cost of attending a four-year public university, including room and board, increased from $11,655 in 2000 to $19,548 in 2015, in inflation-adjusted dollars. In the City University of New York system, tuition at four-year colleges is now $6,330, having increased by $300 each year since 2011, when it was $4,830. . .

“What Sanders figured out — it’s not the $65,000 cost of attendance at some of our pricier privates driving the debt bubble, but rather the disinvestment and privatization of public higher ed,” said Barmak Nassirian, the director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

***This is one of the examples I use in my graduate-level course on the Political Economy of War and Peace—that the United States has its own history of intrastate wars (which, like many such wars in recent times, have been class wars) and that, as the authors explain, “military and law enforcement institutions of the United States, in particular the Army, the National Guard, and the FBI, can trace their origins to the federal troops, state militias, and private Pinkertons deployed in 19th century labor conflicts.”

****The key point Shiller does not address is the role mainstream economics has played both in creating the current levels of inequality and in creating barriers to imagining and enacting policies and strategies for doing away with the grotesque levels of inequality we are witnessing today.

*****Amartya Sen famously argued that democracy prevents famines. That may be true. But it doesn’t prevent hunger or the other economic and social catastrophes that stem from the high levels of inequality we’ve witnessed during the first and second Gilded Ages in the United States.