Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’

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Cartoon of the day

Posted: 7 September 2019 in Uncategorized
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Cartoon of the day

Posted: 3 September 2019 in Uncategorized
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The Boom-Bust Cycle of Capitalism

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American capitalism is coming apart at the seams.

Truth be told, it’s been coming apart for decades now—and that trend has only continued during the recovery from the worst crash since the 1930s.

A good indicator of the shredding of the U.S. economic and social fabric is the difference in the level of compensation of Chief Executive Officers of major American corporations compared to that of the average worker. While they labor, workers create value, some of which they receive back in the form of compensation; the rest of what they produce is the surplus, which is appropriated by the boards of directors of the enterprises that hire the workers. The boards also hire CEOs, to supervise the production of the surplus, who in turn get a cut of the surplus. In other words, the executives share in the booty created by the workers they supervise. Thus, both groups—CEOs and workers—perform labor and are compensated for their work but the source and level of their compensation couldn’t be more different.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, in 2018, average compensation (including realized capital gains) of CEOs at the top 350 American firms was $17.2 million. And for workers? It was only $56 thousand. As a result, the ratio of CEO compensation to that of workers was an astounding 278.1 to 1! In 1978, that ratio stood at 29.7 to 1. The spectacular growth in the CEO-to-average-worker-compensation ratio reflects the fact that, over that same period, CEO compensation has risen 940.3 percent while that of workers has grown only 11.9 percent.

Just in the past nine years of the so-called recovery, CEO compensation far outpaced that of workers: 52.6 percent compared to only 12.7 percent.

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It should come as no surprise, then, that over the 1978-2018 period, the labor share of national income has dropped precipitously, by 8.7 percent (falling 2.1 percent just since 2009). Corporate CEOs have thus done their job—extracting more surplus from workers—and been rewarded handsomely for their efforts.

And Americans are quite aware of how unfair the U.S. corporate economy has become.

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According to a 2016 survey conducted by David F. LarckerNicholas E. Donatiello, and Brian Tayan for the Stanford Rock Center for Corporate Governance, 74 percent of Americans believe that CEOs are not paid the correct amount relative to the average worker; only 16 percent believe that they are. And 70 percent believe that CEO compensation in the United States is a problem; only 18 percent think it’s not. 

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And that’s even when Americans grossly underestimate the amount of the surplus corporate CEOs manage to capture. The typical American believes a CEO earns $1 million in pay (with an average of $9.3 million), whereas median reported compensation for the CEOs of these companies was approximately $10.3 million (with an average of $12.2 million).

In other words, CEO compensation figures are much higher than the public is aware of, and for many Americans it is simply incomprehensible that anyone can earn that much money.

Moreover, Americans are not convinced corporate CEOs should be able to capture as much of the surplus as they do. For example, according to the same survey, when respondents are given a hypothetical situation in which a company’s value increases by $100 million over the course of a year, the median respondent believes that the CEO should receive only 0.5 percent ($500,000) as compensation. In other words, as Donatiello put it, “Either the public is not sold on the idea that CEOs should share in value creation to the extent that they do. Or they do not believe that CEOs play an important role in value creation.”

Clearly, the high level of exploitation—and the subsequent distribution of a large portion of the resulting surplus to CEOs—is the source of the rending of the U.S. economic and social fabric. Unless corporations are fundamentally transformed, so that workers and society as a whole have a say in the size and distribution of the surplus, American capitalism will continue to come apart at the seams.

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Richard Reeves is right about one thing: time is crucial to capitalism’s legitimacy. The premise and promise of capitalism are that the future will be better than the present. And “if capitalism loses its lease on the future, it is in trouble.”

The fact is, things are not getting better for the vast majority of American workers. They’re falling behind. For example, as is clear in the chart above, the labor share in the U.S. nonfarm business sector has fallen more than 13 percent since early 2001—and there’s no indication that trend will be reversed anytime in the foreseeable future.

Time is clearly running out on capitalism.

It’s not as though Americans are unaware of this and other related trends, such as the looming climate crisis.*

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Back in 2014, most Americans (62 percent) said the economic system in the United States unfairly favored powerful interests; only about a third (34 percent) said it is generally fair to most Americans. According to the Pew Research Center, those percentages are almost the same today.**

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Moreover, the public continues to say that “business corporations make too much profit.” Today, 56 percent of the public says corporations make too much profit; only 39 percent say “most corporation make a fair and reasonable amount of profit.” These views have held largely steady since 1994.

Americans hold similar views about the fairness of the Trump tax cuts (49 percent disapprove versus 36 percent who expressed approval) and the federal tax system (around 60 percent feel that some corporations and some wealthy people don’t pay their fair share).

Clearly, capitalism has lost a great deal of whatever legitimacy it once enjoyed in the minds of Americans.

Time may be running out for capitalism but time is still on our side. Because the same future orientation—the fact that “once the capitalism engine revved up, the future entered our collective imagination”—also includes the possibility that things can in fact be better in the future, even if making things better requires fundamental changes in the way the economy is organized.***

It is that relationship to time created by capitalism, according to which “each generation will rise on the shoulders of the one before,” that both leads to resentment about the unfulfilled promises of the existing economy and sparks the imagination of a radically different way of organizing economic and social life in the future.

 

*Reeves makes what can only be considered a risible argument on this score: “Blaming capitalism for climate change is like blaming distilleries for drunk driving.” The fact is, global warming is the result of the Capitalocene, in which the activities of corporations have made enormous profits both producing and using fossil fuels—and they haven’t been made to pay for the environmental costs, which they’ve managed to shift to the rest of society.

**The only notable change in the last five years is the fact that Republicans’ and Democrats’ attitudes about the fairness of the economic system have moved in opposite directions: in 2014, there was a 20 percentage-point gap between the shares of Republicans (51 percent) and Democrats (71 percent) who said the economy unfairly favors powerful interests; that gap is now 41 points (40 percent of Republicans versus 81 percent of Democrats). While about eight-in-ten Democrats and Democratic leaners say the economic system is unfair, a majority of Republicans and Republican leaners (56 percent) now say the economic system is generally fair to most Americans.

***The problem of time has long eluded mainstream, especially neoclassical, economists. For example, the only way they can envision a general equilibrium of markets is to suspend time, forbidding all trades unless and until there’s a price vector (announced by the mythical “auctioneer”) that brings all (actually, n-1) markets into equilibrium. Once time is introduced and trades take place without supply-demand equilibrium, all bets are off. Then, it’s likely the economy will not be in equilibrium, and may even move further away from equilibrium over time.

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