Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’

diagnosis-capitalism

Special mention

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Last year, as I reported the other day, I published over 800 new posts.

I’ve never done this before. However, I decided to look back over the year and choose one post for each month of 2016:

January—Liberal ideology

February—Who are the capitalists?

March—Yea, they’re angry!

April—Life among the liberal econ

May—Letting capitalism off the hook

June—Globalization, inequality, and imperialism

July—Trump and the Prosperity Gospel

August—The Mandibles and dystopian finance fiction

September—What about the white working-class?

October—Nobel economics—or why does capital hire labor?

November—Condition of the working-class in the United States

December—China syndrome

Enjoy!

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The capitalist machine is broken—and no one seems to know how to fix it.

The machine I’m referring to is the one whereby the “capitalist” (i.e., the boards of directors of large corporations) converts the “surplus” (i.e., corporate profits) into additional “capital” (i.e., nonresidential fixed investment)—thereby preserving the pact with the devil: the capitalists are the ones who get and decide on the distribution of the surplus, and then they’re supposed to use the surplus for investment, thereby creating economic growth and well-paying jobs.

The presumption of mainstream economists and business journalists (as well as political and economic elites) is that the capitalist machine is the only possible one, and that it will work.

Except it’s not: corporate profits have been growing (the red line in the chart above) but investment has been falling (the blue line in the chart), both in the short run and in the long run. Between 2008 and 2015, corporate profits have soared (as a share of gross domestic income, from 3.9 to 6.3 percent) but investment has decreased (as a share of gross domestic product, from 13.5 to 12.4 percent). Starting from 1980, the differences are even more stark: corporate profits were lower (3.6 percent) and investment was much higher (14.5 percent).

The fact that the machine is not working—and, as a result, growth is slowing down and job-creation is not creating the much-promised rise in workers’ wages—has created a bit of a panic among mainstream economists and business journalists.

Larry Summers, for example, finds himself reaching back to Alvin Hansen and announcing we’re in a period of “secular stagnation”:

Most observers expected the unusually deep recession to be followed by an unusually rapid recovery, with output and employment returning to trend levels relatively quickly. Yet even with the U.S. Federal Reserve’s aggressive monetary policies, the recovery (both in the United States and around the globe) has fallen significantly short of predictions and has been far weaker than its predecessors. Had the American economy performed as the Congressional Budget Office fore­cast in August 2009—after the stimulus had been passed and the recovery had started—U.S. GDP today would be about $1.3 trillion higher than it is.

Clearly, the current recovery has fallen far short of expectations. But then Summers seeks to calm fears—”secular stagnation does not reveal a profound or inherent flaw in capitalism”—and suggests an easy fix: all that has to happen is an increase in government-financed infrastructure spending to raise aggregate demand and induce more private investment spending.

As if rising profitability is not enough of an incentive for capitalists.

Noah Smith, for his part, is also worried the machine isn’t working, especially since, with low interest-rates, credit for investment projects is cheap and abundant—and yet corporate investment remains low by historical standards. Contra Summers, Smith suggests the real problem is “credit rationing,” that is, small companies have been shut out of the necessary funding for their investment projects. So, he would like to see policies that promote access to capital:

That would mean encouraging venture capital, small-business lending and more effort on the part of banks to seek out promising borrowers — basically, an effort to get more businesses inside the gated community of capital abundance.

Except, of course, banks have an abundance of money to lend—and venture capital has certainly not been sitting on the sidelines.

Profitability, in other words, is not the problem. What neither Summers nor Smith is willing to ask is what corporations are actually doing with their growing profits (not to mention cheap credit and equity funding via the stock market) if not investing them.

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We know that corporations are not paying higher taxes to the government. As a share of gross domestic income, they’re lower than they were in 2006, and much lower than they were in the 1950s and 1960s. So, the corporate tax-cuts proposed by the incoming administration are not likely to induce more investment. Corporations will just be able to retain more of the profits they get from their workers.

But corporations are distributing their profits to other uses. Dividends to shareholders have increased dramatically (as a share of gross domestic income, the green line in the chart at the top of the post): from 1.7 percent in 1980 to 4.6 percent in 2015.

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Corporations are also using their profits to repurchase their own shares (thereby boosting stock indices to record levels), to finance mergers and acquisitions (which increase concentration, but not investment, and often involve cutting jobs), to raise the income and wealth of CEOs (thus further raising incomes of the top 1 percent and increasing conspicuous consumption), and to hold cash (at home and, especially, in overseas tax havens).

And that’s the current dilemma: the machine is working but only for a tiny group at the top. For everyone else, it’s not—not by a long shot.

We can expect, then, a long line of mainstream economists and business journalists who, like Summers and Smith, will suggest one or another tool to tinker with the broken machine. What they won’t do is state plainly the current machine is beyond repair—and that we need a radically different one to get things going again.

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Certainly not by mainstream economists—not if they continue to defend their turf and to attack the new literature on “Slavery’s Capitalism” with the vehemence they’ve recently displayed.

It makes me want to forget I ever obtained my Ph.D. in economics and the fact that I’ve spent much of my life working in and around the discipline.

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education [ht: ja] highlights Edward E. Baptist’s novel book, The Half Has Never Been Told (which I wrote about back in 2014), and some of the outrageous ways it has been criticized by mainstream economists—first in a review in the Economist (which was so over-the-top it was subsequently retracted) and then in a group of reviews published in the Journal of Economic History (unfortunately, behind a paywall).

In my view, this is not a clash between two disciplines (as the Chronicle would have it), but rather a fundamental incompatibility between mainstream economic theory and a group of historians who have refused to adhere to the epistemological and methodological protocols established and defended—with a remarkable degree of ignorance and intolerance—by mainstream economists.

What is at stake is a particular view of slavery in relation to U.S. capitalism—as well as a way of producing economic history (of slavery, capitalism, and much else).

Baptist’s argument, in a nutshell, is that slavery was central to the development of U.S. capitalism (“not just shaping but dominating it”) and systematic torture (a “whipping machine”) was one of the principal means slaveowners used to increase the productivity of cotton-picking slaves and thus boost the surplus they were able to extract from them.

Mainstream economists hold a quite different view—that slavery was an outdated, inefficient system that had little to do with the growth of capitalism in North America, and increased productivity in cotton production was due to biological innovation (improved varieties of seeds that yielded more pickable cotton) not torture in the labor process.

They also use different frameworks of analysis: whereas Baptist relies on slave narratives and contingent historical explanations, mainstream economists fetishize quantitative methods and invoke universal (transcultural and transhistorical) modes of individual decision-making.

Those are the two major differences that separate Baptist (and other “Slavery’s Capitalism” historians) and mainstream economists.

This is how one mainstream economist, Alan L. Olmstead, begins his review:

Edward Baptist’s study of capitalism and slavery is flawed beyond repair.

Olmstead then proceeds to accuse Baptist of being careless with the numbers, of “making things up,” and “misunderstanding economic logic,” all of which leads to “a vast overstatement of cotton’s and slavery’s ‘role’ on the wider economy and on capitalist development.”

He concludes:

All and all, Baptist’s arguments on the sources of slave productivity growth and on the essentiality of slavery for the rise of capitalism have little historical foundation, raise bewildering and unanswered contradictions, selectively ignore conflicting evidence, and are error-ridden.

Baptist, for his part, has responded to Olmstead’s scathing attack (as well as critical reviews by others) in the following fashion:

Some scholars axiomatically refuse to accept the implications of the fact that brutal technologies of violence drove slave labor. They retreat into homo economicus fallacies to resist considering the question of whether in some cases violence increased, or was calibrated over time to enhance production. They evade consideration of survivors’ testimony about those changes, insisting that this data is “anecdotal”—as if the enslavers’ claims on which they build arguments are epistemologically any different.

That’s a problem for those of us who work in and around the discipline of economics: mainstream economists are simply unwilling to give up on homo economicus and doggedly refuse to examine either the economic effects of the brutal system of torture that was central to U.S. slavery or the role slave cotton played in the development of U.S. capitalism. Not to mention their arrogance in responding to the work of anyone who argues otherwise.

And that’s why the other half of the story will never be told by mainstream economists.

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Like the conceptual equivalent of Gresham’s Law, bad ideas about work keep driving out good ones.

The latest example is from Noah Smith, who, like other mainstream economists before him (e.g., Brad DeLong), asserts that “jobs give people dignity and a sense of self-worth.”

That’s bad enough. But even worse is that Smith thinks he’s criticizing and improving on mainstream economic theory, according to which “a job isn’t treated as something inherently valuable — it’s just a conduit through which money flows from employer to employee.” So, he recommends mainstream economists look to sociology to affirm the dignity of labor.

The problem is, sociology—especially the sociology of work—is not going to give Smith what he wants.

A job is, of course, more than “a conduit through which money flows from employer to employee.” That’s just the beginning of the process, the exchange of the ability to work for a wage or salary. That’s already an enormous indignity—to be forced to have the freedom to sell one’s ability to work to a tiny group of employers who have access to the wealth to hire them. And, once the exchange is completed, people have to actually do the job—producing goods or services for their employers, who are able to appropriate the surplus workers create. Thus, in the realm of production, after having sold their ability to perform labor, workers are forced to submit to the control of employers and their hired supervisors, who subject them to whatever conditions are necessary to generate a profit. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be hired in the first place.

Whatever it takes: low wages, long hours, unsafe working conditions, little time off, constant surveillance, no say in what is produced or how it’s produced. And the list goes on.

Where’s the dignity in that?

And all Smith would have to do is read a little of the sociology of work (e.g., in Philip Hodgkiss’s essay on “The Origins of the Idea and Ideal of Dignity in the Sociology of Work and Employment,” in The SAGE Handbook of the Sociology of Work and Employment)—starting with the “classics” (Marx, Durkheim, and Weber) and continuing with the recent literature (including Harry Braverman,  Michael Burawoy, and Arlie Hoschschild).

That’s not to say there’s no place for dignity in and around work. When workers band together to form a union and collectively bargain with their employers, they manage to achieve a level of dignity. And when they eliminate discrimination or bargain to expand benefits. They achieve a different kind of dignity when they are able to participate in decision-making or establish their own firms—whether in the form of cooperatives or worker-owned enterprises.

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So, yes, workers can achieve dignity—not by having jobs (as Smith and other mainstream economists assert) but by struggling over the conditions of those jobs. When they assert and affirm their dignity as human beings, not because of but in spite of the fact that, within current economic institutions, they’re forced to have the freedom to work for someone else. And, even more, when they reject those institutions and become their own bosses.

As Sharon Bolton explains,

There is general consensus, though originating from many different perspectives, that dignity is an essential core human characteristic. It is overwhelmingly presented as meaning people are worth something as human beings, that it is something that should be respected and not taken advantage of and that the maintenance of human dignity is a core contributor to a stable moral order in society. However, when entering the realms of work and the complexities of exchanging labour for a wage the definitions become much less clear. In selling one’s labour does one also relinquish autonomy, freedom, equality and, often, well-being—the very ingredients of life that have been most commonly associated with human dignity.

So, yes, Smith and other mainstream economists might want to spend more time reading in and around the sociology or work. But, once they do, they’re probably not going to experience a great deal of self-worth in relation to their blithe assertions concerning the dignity of work under capitalism.

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President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to bribe Carrier into keeping 800 manufacturing jobs in Indiana, instead of moving them to one of its Mexican plants, has met with opposition from mainstream economists, both liberal and conservative.

Clearly, it’s not about the size of the deal (although $7 million in incentives to keep less than one thousand jobs is a big deal). Carrier corporate parent United Technologies is still planning to outsource production that will eliminate 1300 jobs in Indiana. And 900 jobs make up a minuscule portion (0.17 percent, to be exact) of the total number of manufacturing jobs in that Midwestern state.*

No, mainstream economists’ opposition rests on other grounds. Justin Wolfers, for example, uses the silly analogy of a parking garage to defend the process of “creative destruction” and the idea that a “fluid labor market. . .is the secret of American dynamism.”

Think of the American economy as a 10-level parking structure or garage, where each car represents an active firm, and the seats in the car are the jobs available. A well-managed business like this is usually pretty full. But it’s also in a state of constant flux, with new cars entering as some people arrive, and previously parked cars leaving as others head home. Every hour, around a tenth of the cars leave the lot, just as a tenth of existing business establishments close each year and leave the labor market.

The deal at Carrier is akin to Mr. Trump’s intercepting a driver on his way to his car, and trying to persuade him to stay parked a little longer — perhaps by pointing to the enticing Christmas specials at the nearby stores.

Tyler Cowen, for his part, is worried that under a Trump administration, a kind of “crony capitalism”—where companies that are good to a presidency are rewarded—will prevail.

But it’s the response by Larry Summers that interests me the most, since he sees the “the negotiation with Carrier is a small thing that is actually a very big thing—a change very much for the worse with regards to the operating assumptions of American capitalism.”

Central to Summers’s argument is the distinction between two kinds of capitalism. One is “rule and law based,” which he believes is how American capitalism operates now.

Courts enforce contracts and property rights in ways that are largely independent of just who it is who is before them. Taxes are calculable on the basis of an arithmetic algorithm. Companies and governments buy from the cheapest bidder. Regulation follows previously promulgated rules. In the economic arena, the state’s monopoly on the use of force is used to enforce contract and property rights and to enforce previously promulgated laws.

The other is “deals based,” which is the world of New York City under Tammany Hall, of Suharto’s Indonesia, and of Putin’s Russia—and, it seems, under Trump.

Economic actors assume that they have to protect their property and do their own contract enforcement.  Tax collectors use discretion in assessing taxes.  Companies and governments buy from their friends rather than seek low cost bids.  Regulators abuse their power. The state’s monopoly on the use of force is used to enrich and satisfy the desires of those who control the apparatus of the state.

So, what’s the difference? Clearly, Summers is referring to variations on a theme: both are forms of capitalism.

As I see it, the difference between “rule and law based” capitalism and “deals based” capitalism comes down to whether the capitalist class as a whole or individual capitalists are the beneficiaries of state policies. In the former, the rules and laws, backed with the state’s monopoly on the use of force, are such that the capitalist class as a whole—although not necessarily any individual capitalist—has the right to appropriate the surplus and decide privately how to distribute it. They, as a class, are the winners (even when some of the individual capitalists lose out in competitive battles with other capitalists). In the latter, when deals are made with the government, once again backed by the state’s monopoly on the use of force, individual capitalists are picked out to be winners (or, if they’re on the wrong side of the deals, losers). But it’s still the case, even when ad hoc decisions are made, that the capitalist class as a whole is allowed to capture and distribute the surplus.**

In the end, maybe Justin Wolfers’s parking-garage analogy is the appropriate one. Under “rule and law based” capitalism, garage owners compete with one another under a general set of rules and regulations—and some will win while others lose. Under a “deals based” system, individual owners find themselves negotiating concessions with the government, which can decide who the individual winners and losers will be.

So, there are differences. But in both cases, the rest of us are forced to have the freedom to park our cars in garages that we neither own nor have any say in operating.

 

*As it turns out, Indiana is the state with the highest percentage of manufacturing jobs, at 16.8 percent. But the share of those jobs has fallen dramatically since 1990, when it was 24 percent.

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**Another difference between the two systems is how the surplus is distributed and then spent. Under a “rule and law based” system, the state captures a portion of the surplus via taxes and then spends it to create the conditions under which the capitalism system as a whole is reproduced, while under a “deals based” system, individual capitalists can bribe the state with a portion of the surplus they appropriate from their workers and then receive concessions that pertain to them but not to other capitalists. In both cases, however, the surplus is used to protect capitalists’ property and enforce contracts—all the while backed by the state’s monopoly on the use of force.

Cartoon of the day

Posted: 26 October 2016 in Uncategorized
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