Posts Tagged ‘capitalists’

socialism

Every public opinion survey I’ve seen in recent years shows a growing interest in socialism, especially among young people.*

Socialism is an obvious solution to the most pressing economic and social problems threatening the world today, from growing inequality to climate change. But, as I’ve written before, socialism has many different meanings—both what it is or might be, and what it is not.

John Quiggin [ht: ja] suggests that what we need today is not “soft neoliberalism” (what I have referred to as “left neoliberalism,” of the sort that came to be articulated in the trajectory of the U.S. Democratic Party defined by Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton and the Labor Party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown), much less the tribalist politics of Donald Trump’s Republicans and Teresa May’s Tories, but a radically new vision—what Quiggin refers to as “socialism with a spine.”

I couldn’t agree more. Moreover, Quiggin is right to point out that,

As it is used today, the term socialism does not reflect a well-worked ideology. Rather it conveys an attitude that could be described as “unapologetic social democracy” or, in the US context, “liberalism with a spine”. It’s expressed in support for proposals that break with the cautious incrementalism of the past, and are in some cases frankly utopian: universal basic income, free post-school education, large increases in minimum wages, and so on.

That’s important, but a real alternative needs more than attitude and a grab-bag of policy ideas. After decades in which the focus has been on critiquing neoliberalism, the task of thinking about positive alternatives is urgent, but efforts in this direction are only just beginning.

But I’m not convinced by much of the rest of Quiggin’s argument, which is focused on looking backward to what he considers to be the “social democratic moment of the 50s and 60s” and forwards in terms of “a genuine sharing economy based on the internet and other technological advances.”

The backwards move uncritically celebrates the supposed successes of Keynesian macroeconomic management and, looking forward, narrowly focuses on the possibilities opened up by digital technologies.

While I’m all in favor of articulating a vision of a “genuine sharing economy”—because, if socialism is nothing else, it certainly means, as Jeremy Corbyn put it, “You care for each other, you care for everybody, and everybody cares for everybody else”—I think we can do better than limiting ourselves to Keynesian full employment and the production of information.

We have to remember that the middle of the twentieth century, which turns out to have been a unique period of sustained economic growth and full employment in developed market economies, also meant long hours of drudgery in factories and offices to the benefit of employers, who retained both the interest and means to evade and ultimately overturn the regulations that had been implemented during the first Great Depression. Which of course they did, culminating in the crash of 2007-08. Why would we want to repeat the mistakes of that period?

And, looking forward, the emergence of new digital technologies, by themselves, doesn’t make socialism any more possible than the waves of innovation we’ve witnessed in the past. And focusing on the new technologies just puts the idea of socialism beyond anyone who is not already enamored of digital connectivity and social media—and therefore all but the youngest members of the working-class.

The task, it seems to me, is to articulate a vision of socialism that is predicated not on a nostalgia for the past or the role of a particular set of technologies, but on the persistent and growing gap that exists between the conditions of contemporary life and the possibilities created by existing forms of economic and social organization.

Thus, for example, instead of railing against Wall Street and increasingly concentrated industries, why not imagine the possibilities that capitalism itself has created both to eliminate the need for capitalists and to easily administer large parts of the economy to the benefit of everyone?

By the same token, why not build on the idea that, today, it is increasingly recognized that decent jobs, healthcare, education, and retirement are rights, not privileges, but that those in charge prevent those rights from being fulfilled?

Socialism is born out of that yawning crevasse between reality and promise—by articulating a set of changes in the existing reality that move us closer to that real promise.**

And here I think Quiggin and I may actually be in agreement:

Socialists have always seen short-term political struggles as part of a long-term project of transforming society for the better.

 

*For example, according to the 2016 Gallup Survey, 35 percent of Americans have a positive view of socialism (itself a remarkably high figure, given the Cold War legacy in the United States), which rises to 55 percent for Americans age 18 to 29. And while only 13 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners have a positive view of socialism, 58 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners view socialism in a favorable light.

**To be clear, it’s not just a question of defining socialism; we also need to discuss the strategic issue, of where and how a reborn socialist movement can build a political and social base. As Bill Fletcher explains, with respect to “the growth in interest in socialism, broadly defined, among a large number of people, particularly younger people.”

That is fantastic!  But it is far from clear that they are wedded to a class project, except in a very abstract sense. And that difference is fundamental. It’s not just an ideological question; it is also a strategic question.

1440_shop-therefore-i-am

Lots of folks have been asking me about the significance of the so-called Nobel Prize in economics that was awarded yesterday to Richard Thaler.

They’re interested because they’ve read or heard about the large catalog of exceptions to the usual neoclassical rule of rational decision-making that has been compiled by Thaler and other behavioral economists.

One of my favorites is the “ultimatum game,” in which a player proposes an allocation of an endowment (say $5) and the second player can accept or reject the proposal. If the proposal is accepted, both players get paid according to the proposal; if the proposal is rejected, both players get nothing. What Thaler and his coauthors found is that most of the second players would reject proposals that would give them less than 25 percent of the endowment—even though, rationally, they’d be better off with even one penny in the initial offer. In other words, many individuals are willing to pay a cost (i.e., get nothing) in order to punish individuals who make an “unfair” proposal to them. Such a notion of fairness is anathema to the kind of self-interested, rational decision-making that is central to neoclassical economic theory.

Other exceptions include the “endowment effect” (for the tendency of individuals to value items more just because they own them), the theory of “mental accounting” (according to which individuals can overcome cognitive limitations by simplifying the economic environment in systematic ways, such as using separate funds for different household expenditures), the planner-doer model (in which individuals are both myopic doers for short-term decisions and farsighted planners for decisions that have long-run implications), and so on—all of which have implications for a wide variety of economic behavior and institutions, from consumption to financial markets.

So, what is the significance of Thaler’s approach to economics?

As I see it, there are three stories that can be told about behavioral economics. The first one is the official story, as related by the Nobel committee, which starts from the proposition that “economics involves understanding human behaviour in economic decision-making situations and in markets.” But, since “people are complicated beings,” and even though the neoclassical model “provided solutions to important and complicated economic problems,” Thaler’s work (alone and with his coauthors) has contributed to expanding and refining economic analysis by considering psychological traits that systematically influence economic decisions—thus creating a “a flourishing area of research” and providing “economists with a richer set of analytical and experimental tools for understanding and predicting human behavior.”

A second story is provided by Yahya Madra (in Contending Economic Theories, with Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick): behavioral economics forms part of what he calls “late neoclassical theory” that both poses critical questions about neoclassical homo economicus and threatens to overrun the limits of neoclassical theory by offering “a completely new vision of how to specify the economic behavior of individuals.” Thus,

Based on its psychological explorations, behavioral economics confronts a choice: will it remain a research field that merely catalogs various shortcomings of the traditional neoclassical model and account of human behavior or will it break from neoclassical theory to formulate a new theory of human behavior?

A third story stems from a recognition that behavioral economics challenges some aspects of neoclassical economics—by pointing out many of the ways individuals are guided by forms of decisionmaking that violate the rule of self-interested rationality presumed by traditional neoclassical economists—and yet remains within the strictures of neoclassical economics—by focusing on individual behavior and using rational decision-making as the goal.

Thus, Thaler’s work and the work of most behavioral economists focuses on the limits to individual rationality and not on the perverse incentives and structures that plague contemporary capitalism. There’s no mention of the ways wealthy individuals and large corporations, precisely because of their high incomes and profits, are able to make individually rational decisions that—as in the crash of 2007-08—have negative social ramifications for everyone else. Nor is there a discussion of the different kinds of rationalities that are implicit in different ways of organizing the economy. As I wrote back in 2011, “is there a difference between how capitalists (who appropriate the surplus for doing nothing) and workers (who actually produce the surplus) might decide to distribute the surplus to others?”

Moreover, while behavioral economics have compiled a long list of exceptions to neoclassical rationality, they still use the neoclassical ideal as the horizon of their work. This can be seen in what is probably the best known of Thaler’s writings (with coauthor Cass Sunstein), the idea of “libertarian paternalism.” According to this view, “beneficial changes in behavior can be achieved by minimally invasive policies that nudge people to make the right decisions for themselves.” Thus, for example, Thaler proposed changing the default option in defined-contribution pension plans from having to actively sign up for the plan (which leads to suboptimal outcomes) to automatically joining the plan at some default savings rate and in some default investment strategy (which approximates rational decision-making).

The problem is, there’s no discussion of the idea that workers would benefit from an alternative to defined-contribution plans—whether defined-benefit plans or the expansion of Social Security. It’s all about taking the institutional structure as given and “nudging” individuals, via the appropriate design of mechanisms, to make the kinds of rational decisions that are presumed within neoclassical economics.

Paraphrasing that nineteenth-century critic of political economy, we can say that economic decision-making appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. We might credit Thaler and other behavioral economists, then, for having taken a first step in challenging the traditional neoclassical account of rational decision-making. But they stop far short of examining the perverse incentives that are built into the current economic system or the alternative rationalities that could serve as the basis for a different way of organizing economic and social life. And, in terms of economic theory, they appear not to be able to imagine another way of thinking about the economy, as a process without an individual subject.

However, taking any of those steps would never be recognized with a Nobel Prize in economics.

min-wage

A couple of weeks ago, I published a guest post, by minimum-wage expert Dale Belman, about a controversial study of the effects of an earlier decision in Seattle to raise the local minimum wage to a level much higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Now, in Trump’s America, we’re seeing exactly the opposite: an attempt, on the part of the Republican-controlled Missouri legislature, to roll back local minimum wages to levels that are no higher than the state minimum of $7.40 an hour.

Of course, that’s already happened in other places, such as Ohio and Alabama, which affected minimum-wage workers in Cleveland and Birmingham. And, in all these places, Republican legislatures have used the arguments mainstream economists—but not most empirical studies—have offered them: higher minimum wages might seem to be the best way of helping low-wage workers but, since they lead to a loss of employment (either though dismissals or automation), workers earning at or just above the existing minimum wage are actually hurt.

Well, I’ve dealt with that argument many times on this blog, including a post I did in July of last year, in which I argued that employers’ profits were the real obstacle:

The fact is, when employers threaten to let workers go (or not hire additional workers) if the minimum wage is increased (or mainstream economists make the argument for them), they’re attempting to protect their bottom line. If they kept their existing workers, so the argument goes, their profits would fall; and if they wanted to maintain their current level of profits, they’d have to fire some of their workers and replace them with one or another form of automation. It’s all about pumping out the maximum profits from their employees.

Profits also enter the story in a second way. Private employers see the possibility of compensating for minimum-wage-related job losses—by offering workers public relief and by creating new jobs through public programs—as a challenge to their existing control over workers, jobs, and ultimately profits. That’s the second reason they oppose an increase in minimum wage, because they know full well society has the means to make up for their willingness to eliminate jobs. But then their own role in the economy and the profits that come from that role are called into question.

For both those reasons—the threat to fire workers and the threat to their monopoly as employers—profits are the real obstacle to raising the minimum wage.

Republicans and business groups in Missouri, as elsewhere around the country, are doing all they can to push back on the wave of municipal minimum-wage increases in order to safeguard those profits—with the same boiler-plate rhetoric:

“We can’t let the biggest economic engine in the state, St. Louis, become an island that employers avoid due to higher labor costs,” Missouri Chamber of Commerce & Industry President Daniel Mehan said in an interview Friday. Elevated city minimum wages would cost workers jobs, encourage businesses to automate, and create confusion along city borders, he said.

What makes Missouri unique is the higher minimum wage in St. Louis, of $10 an hour, had already been in effect for months before the state pre-emption law kicked in. And workers were already experiencing the benefits:

Bettie Douglas, a worker at a St. Louis McDonald’s restaurant, expects to take a pay cut this week, though she said her manager hasn’t informed her of a new rate. Before May, the 59-year-old received $7.90 an hour, she said. Ms. Douglas, an activist seeking higher minimum wages nationwide, earned about $63 more a week because of the higher wage floor, money she said allowed her to have her water turned back on and buy school supplies for her teenage son.

“It’s made a big difference,” she said Friday. “It’s still a struggle, but I had a little extra to pay my bills.”

Some employers will of course take advantage of the new law and roll back their workers’ wages. But others aren’t convinced it’s a good idea:

“People would be angry and then they wouldn’t do a good job and they’d be resentful,” said Harman Moseley, whose STL Cinemas operates four local theaters, including the Chase Park Plaza, Moolah Theatre and MX Movies.

Of course, workers are going to be angry and resentful—and perhaps even more.

There are, I think, a couple of lessons here: First, working-class movements to improve their lot can in fact succeed, making it difficult—but, of course, not impossible—to roll them back. Second, there’s a reason why working-class Americans are suspicious not only of their employers, but also of politicians and the government. That’s particularly true when politicians are so closely aligned with their employers.

My guess is both of those lessons will be put to the test even more in Trump’s America.

I don’t have strong views about the idea of “platform capitalism,” the concept presented and elaborated in a recent book by Nick Srnicek to make sense of the business model of such companies as Google, Amazon, and Uber. I don’t feel I have a dog in that hunt.

What I do like is Srnicek’s critique of other designations—such as tech companies, sharing, and the gig economy—and his focus on the idea that these are, after all, capitalist firms operating in a capitalist economy. Their raison d’être is to make a profit by centralizing and monopolizing access to data and selling data (or services based on those data) to other firms.

In fact, the notion of “platform capitalism” might be extended to other kinds of enterprises. I’m thinking, for example, of sports franchises and universities. They also operate as platforms inasmuch as they generate profits across a range of activities. Nominally, they produce and sell a commodity (e.g., a football match and higher education)—but that only serves as a pretext for generating profits in other activities: in the case of sports franchises, television revenues, shirts and other memorabilia, food and drink concessions, and so on; similarly, in the case of higher education, on-line courses, research-based fees and patents, food and lodging for students and visitors, branded clothing, and of course collegiate sports spectacles. In both cases, sports franchises and universities operate as diverse, profit-making platforms.

So, in my view, the idea of “platform capitalism” might be a useful way of thinking about at least some forms of capitalism that exist today.

What I find odd, though, is some of the commentary on Srnicek’s work. Consider, for example, Daniel Little’s posing of the questions generated by the emergence of “platform capitalism”:

what after all is the source of value and wealth? And who has a valid claim on a share? What principles of justice should govern the distribution of the wealth of society? The labor theory of value had an answer to the question, but it is an answer that didn’t have a lot of validity in 1850 and has none today.

What Little seems not to understand is that the profits of the enterprises operating under the rubric of “platform capitalism” are still based on the surplus labor of workers who produce the commodities that are being sold. Uber, for example, manages to generate its profits by capturing the surplus of its drivers. It doesn’t own the vehicles and doesn’t directly employ the drivers (with all the associated costs savings) but, since it owns the platform that connects drivers to passengers, it secures a “right” to the surplus created by the drivers and paid for by the passengers. The other kinds of platforms analyzed by Srnicek have different ways of generating profits: by selling advertising based on information collected about users (e.g., Facebook and Google), by renting servers used to process data (e.g., Amazon), and so on. But in all these cases, workers are doing the job of writing and modifying software, collecting and processing data, building and maintaining servers, and supplying the ultimate services to other enterprises or final consumers who purchase the commodities. And the members of the boards of directors of platform capitalist enterprises are the ones who ultimately appropriate the surplus.

Capitalism has, of course, changed since the mid-nineteenth century. The technologies, the modes of employment of workers, the ways commodities are marketed and the role users play, the measuring and processing of data—all of those features of the capitalist mode of production have changed radically since industrial capitalism first emerged. But the basic logic—of capitalists and workers, of creating, appropriating, and distributing surplus labor in the form of surplus-value—is the same for capitalist enterprises today just as it was in 1850.

That’s why the Marxian critique of political economy, modified and updated for the twenty-first century, continues to be able to explain the “source of value and wealth”—including and perhaps especially “the soaring inequalities of income and wealth that capitalism has produced” in recent decades.

3b40892e-934f-11e3-b07c-00144feab7de

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin may not be worried. Nor, it seems, are other members of the economic and political elite. But the rest of us are—or we should be.

As regular readers of this blog know (cf. all these posts), the robots are here and they’re rapidly replacing workers, thus leading to less employment, downward pressure on wages, and even more inequality.

The latest evidence comes from the work of Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo, who argue, using a model in which robots compete against human labor in the production of different tasks, that in the United States robots have reduced both employment and wages during recent decades (from 1993 to 2007). That conclusion holds even accounting for the fact that some areas of the economy may grow (thus increasing employment for some workers) when the use of robots raises productivity and reduces costs in other industries.

robots

Even though U.S. employers have been introducing industrial robots at a pace that is less than in Europe, their use in American workplaces has in fact grown (between 1993 and 2007, the stock of robots in the United States increased fourfold, amounting to one new industrial robot for every thousand workers). And, once the direct and indirect effects are estimated, robots are responsible for up to 670,000 lost manufacturing jobs. And that number will rise, because industrial robots are expected to quadruple by 2025.

Actually, the effects have likely been even more dramatic, because Acemoglu and Restrepo take into account only three forces shaping the labor market: the displacement effect (because robots displace workers and reduce the demand for labor), the price-productivity effect (as automation lowers the costs of production in an industry, that industry expands), and the scale-productivity effect (the reduction of costs results in an expansion of total output).

What they’re missing is the effect on the value of labor power. As I explained last year, when productivity increases lower the prices of commodities workers consume, the value capitalists need to pay to get access to workers’ ability to work also goes down. As a result, even if workers’ real wages go up, the rate of exploitation can rise. Workers spend less of the day working for themselves and more for their employers. Capitalists, in other words, are able to extract more relative surplus-value.

And more surplus-value means more income for all those who share in the booty: CEOs, members of the 1 percent, and so on.

That’s why the increasing use of industrial robots, which under other circumstances we might actually celebrate, within existing economic institutions represents a disaster—not for their employers (who, like Mnuchin, are not particularly worried), but for all the workers who have been or are likely to be displaced and even those who manage to hang onto their jobs.

Workers are the ones who are going to continue to suffer from the “large and robust negative effects of robots”—unless and until they have a say in how robots and the resulting surplus are utilized.

rwandan-genocide-political-cartoon

Special mention

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makers-and-takers

Like many liberal economic nationalists, who are concerned about both inequality and economic growth, Michael Lind attempts to make a distinction between “takers” and “makers.”

As against conservative economic nationalists, who blame immigrants and the welfare-dependent poor, Lind focuses his attention on the “rent-extracting, unproductive rich” for undermining the dynamism and fairness of contemporary capitalism.

The term “rent” in this context refers to more than payments to your landlords. . . “Profits” from the sale of goods or services in a free market are different from “rents” extracted from the public by monopolists in various kinds. Unlike profits, rents tend to be based on recurrent fees rather than sales to ever-changing consumers. While productive capitalists — “industrialists,” to use the old-fashioned term — need to be active and entrepreneurial in order to keep ahead of the competition, “rentiers” (the term for people whose income comes from rents, rather than profits) can enjoy a perpetual stream of income even if they are completely passive.

This is a familiar trope within economic discourse. As I’ve explained before (e.g., here and here), it relies on a distinction between productive and unproductive economic activities, which is then overlain with other dichotomies: active vs. passive, doing vs. owning, and so on. The idea is that one group—the passive, owning, recipients of rent—increasingly serve as a drag on the other group—the active, doing, recipients of profits.

If one or more of the sectors providing inputs or infrastructure to productive industry charges excessive rents, then industry can be strangled.  Industry cannot flourish if too much rent is paid to landlords, if credit is too expensive, if excessive copyright protections stifle the diffusion of technology. . .

All of this suggests that, if we want a technology-driven, highly productive economy, we should encourage profit-making productive enterprises while cracking down on rent-extracting monopolies, whether they are natural products of geography and geology (real estate and energy and energy and mineral deposits) or artificial (chartered banks, professional licensing associations, labor unions, patents and copyrights). This is a valid distinction between “makers” and “takers.”

fredgraph

Basically, Lind is privileging the profits that are received by productive capitalists from their supposed doing activities (the blue line in the chart above) and calling into question the profits that are received through the rent-seeking activities of financial capitalists (the red line in the chart above).

It’s a powerful idea, and one that—after the spectacular crash of 2007-08, the subsequent bailout of Wall Street, and the uneven recovery since then—stands to garner a great deal of attention and sympathy.

There are, however, two fundamental problems with Lind’s distinction between profit-oriented makers and rent-seeking takers.

First, Lind presumes that industrial capitalists would do more—more investing, and thus more job creating, more growth, and so on—if they had to pay lower rents to others, including rent-taking financial capitalists. While it is certainly the case that “industrialists” would have higher retained earnings if they distributed less of their profits in the form of rents (not only financial charges but also, as Lind explains, taxes, union wages, oil rents, healthcare premia, and so on), there’s no guarantee they would actually invest or accumulate more capital with those profits.

That is precisely the specter that is created when, as I explained the other day, the capitalist machine is broken. In recent decades, investment has increased much less than profits, thus calling into question the pact with the devil that historically has stood at the center of capitalism. Lind may be an economic nationalist but the industrialists he champions are not, and never have been.

The second problem is that Lind never offers an adequate explanation of where the profits of those industrial capitalists come from. He merely presumes they are the fair return to entrepreneurial, making activities.

But who is doing all that making—and who are the ones getting the profits? Non-financial corporate profits represent the extra value workers create during the course of producing commodities (both goods and services). The workers receive wages (more or less equal to the value of their labor power) and their employers receive the extra or surplus value those workers create (above and beyond the value of labor power). In other words, the profits of industrial capitalists stem from the exploitation of productive workers.

The surplus appropriated by the boards of directors of industrial capitalist enterprises is, in turn, distributed. One portion remains within those enterprises (in the form of retained earnings, executive and supervisory salaries, expenditures on new equipment and software, the hiring of additional workers, and so on), while another portion is distributed outside them (to shareholders, finance capitalists, merchants, the government, and so on). All of those payments—some of which Lind characterizes as profits, others as rents—represent distributions of the surplus.

In the end, then, there is no valid distinction between makers and takers. The appropriators of the surplus make nothing—and everyone who gets a cut of the surplus, in both industrial and financial enterprises, is a taker.

They are all, in Lind’s language, rich moochers who hurt America.