Joseph Stiglitz usefully explains that there’s more than one theory of the distribution of income. One theory, he writes, focuses on competitive markets (according to which “factors of production” receive their marginal contributions to production, the “just deserts” of capitalism); the other, on power (“including the ability to exercise monopoly control or, in labor markets, to assert authority over workers”).
In the West in the post-World War II era, the liberal school of thought has dominated. Yet, as inequality has widened and concerns about it have grown, the competitive school, viewing individual returns in terms of marginal product, has become increasingly unable to explain how the economy works. So, today, the second school of thought is ascendant.
I think Stiglitz is right: with the obscene levels of inequality we’ve seen emerge over the course of the past four decades, the notion of “just deserts” is being called into question, thereby creating space for other theories of the distribution of income to be recognized.
The only major problem with Stiglitz’s account is he leaves out a third possibility, an approach that combines a focus on markets with power, that is, a class analysis of the distribution of income (which the late Stephen Resnick begins to explain in the lecture above).
According to this class or Marxian theory of the distribution of income, markets are absolutely central to capitalism—on both the input side (e.g., when workers sell their labor power to capitalists) and the output side (when capitalists sell the finished goods to realize their value and capture profits). But so is power: workers are forced to have the freedom to sell their labor to capitalists because it has no use-value for them; and capitalists, who have access to the money to purchase the labor power, do so because they can productively consume it in order to appropriate the surplus-value the workers create.
That’s the first stage of the analysis, when markets and power combine to generate the surplus-value capitalists are able to realize in the form of profits. And that’s under the assumption that markets are competitive, that is, there is no monopoly power. It is literally a different reading of commodity values and profits, and therefore a critique of the idea that capitalist factors of production “get what they deserve.” They don’t, because of the existence of class exploitation.
But what if markets aren’t competitive? What if, for example, there is some kind of monopoly power? Well, it depends on what industry or sector we’re referring to. Let’s take one of the industries mentioned by Stiglitz: health insurance. In the case where employers are purchasing health insurance for their employees (the dominant model in the United States, at least for those with health insurance), those employers are forced to transfer some of the surplus-value they appropriate from their own employees to the insurance oligopolies. As a result, the rate of profit for the insurance companies rises (as their monopoly power increases) and the rate of profit for other employers falls (unless, of course, they can cut some other distribution of their surplus-value).*
The analysis could go on.** My only point is to point out there’s a third possibility in the debate over the distribution of income—a theory that combines markets and power and is focused on the role of class in making sense of the grotesque levels of inequality we’re seeing in the United States today.
And, of course, that third approach has policy implications very different from the others—not to force workers to increase their productivity in order to receive higher wages through the labor market or to hope that decreasing market concentration will make the distribution of income more equal, but instead to attack the problem at its source. That would mean changing both markets and power with the goal of eliminating class exploitation.
*This is one of the reasons capitalist employers might support “affordable” healthcare, to raise their rates of profit.
**The analysis of wage or consumer goods would be a bit different. But I don’t have the space to develop that here.