Posts Tagged ‘economics’

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Special mention

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In the end, it all comes down to the theory of value.

That’s what’s at stake in the ongoing debate about the growing gap between productivity and wages in the U.S. economy. Robert Lawrence tries to define it away (by redefining both output and compensation so that the growth rates coincide). Robert Solow, on the other hand, takes the gap seriously and then looks to rent as the key explanatory factor.

The custom is to think of value added in a corporation (or in the economy as a whole) as just the sum of the return to labor and the return to capital. But that is not quite right. There is a third component which I will call “monopoly rent” or, better still, just “rent.” It is not a return earned by capital or labor, but rather a return to the special position of the firm. It may come from traditional monopoly power, being the only producer of something, but there are other ways in which firms are at least partly protected from competition. Anything that hampers competition, sometimes even regulation itself, is a source of rent. We carelessly think of it as “belonging” to the capital side of the ledger, but that is arbitrary. The division of rent among the stakeholders of a firm is something to be bargained over, formally or informally.

This is a tricky matter because there is no direct measurement of rent in this sense. You will not find a line called “monopoly rent” in any firm’s income statement or in the national accounts. It has to be estimated indirectly, if at all. There have been attempts to do this, by one ingenious method or another. The results are not quite “all over the place” but they differ. It is enough if the rent component lies between, say, 10 and 30 percent of GDP, where most of the estimates fall. This is what has to be divided between the claimants—labor and capital and perhaps others. It is essential to understand that what we measure as wages and profits both contain an element of rent.

Until recently, when discussing the distribution of income, mainstream economists’ focus was on profit and wages. Now, however, I’m noticing more and more references to rent.

What’s going on? My sense is, mainstream economists, both liberal and conservative, were content with the idea of “just deserts”—the idea that different “factors of production” were paid what they were “worth” according to marginal productivity theory. And, for the most part, that meant labor and capital, and thus wages and profits. The presumption was that labor was able to capture its “just” share of productivity growth, and labor and capital shares were assumed to be pretty stable (as long as both shares grew at the same rate). Moreover, the idea of rent, which had figured prominently in the theories of the classical economists (like Smith and Ricardo), had mostly dropped out of the equation, given the declining significance of agriculture in the United States and their lack of interest in other forms of land rent (such as the private ownership of land, including the resources under the surface, and buildings).

Well, all that broke down in the wake of the crash of 2007-08. Of course, marginal productivity theory was always on shaky ground. And the gap between wages and productivity had been growing since the mid-1970s. But it was only with the popular reaction to the problem of the “1 percent” and, then, during the unequal recovery, when the tendency for the gap between a tiny minority at the top and everyone else to increase was quickly restored (after a brief hiatus in 2009), that some mainstream economists took notice of the cracks in their theoretical edifice. It became increasingly difficult for them (or at least some of them) to continue to invoke the “just deserts” of marginal productivity theory.

The problem, of course, is mainstream economists still needed a theory of income distribution grounded in a theory of value, and rejecting marginal productivity theory would mean adopting another approach. And the main contender is Marx’s theory, the theory of class exploitation. According to the Marxian theory of value, workers create a surplus that is appropriated not by them but by a small group of capitalists even when productivity and wages were growing at the same rate (such as during the 1948-1973 period). And workers were even more exploited when productivity continued to grow but wages were stagnant (from 1973 onward).

That’s one theory of the growing gap between productivity and wages. But if mainstream economists were not going to follow that path, they needed an alternative. That’s where rent enters the story. It’s something “extra,” something can’t be attributed to either capital or labor, a flow of value that is associated more with an “owning” than a “doing” (because the mainstream assumption is that both capital and labor “do” something, for which they receive their appropriate or just compensation).

According to Solow, capital and labor battle over receiving portions of that rent.

The suggestion I want to make is that one important reason for the failure of real wages to keep up with productivity is that the division of rent in industry has been shifting against the labor side for several decades. This is a hard hypothesis to test in the absence of direct measurement. But the decay of unions and collective bargaining, the explicit hardening of business attitudes, the popularity of right-to-work laws, and the fact that the wage lag seems to have begun at about the same time as the Reagan presidency all point in the same direction: the share of wages in national value added may have fallen because the social bargaining power of labor has diminished.

The problem, as I see it, is that Solow, like all other mainstream economists, is assuming that profits, wages, and rents are independent sources of income. The only difference between his view and that of the classicals is that Solow sees rents going not to an independent class of landlords, but as being “shared” by capital and labor—with labor sometimes getting a larger share and other times a smaller share, depending on the amount of power it is able to wield.

We’re back, then, to something akin to the Trinity Formula. And, as the Old Moor once wrote,

the alleged sources of the annually available wealth belong to widely dissimilar spheres and are not at all analogous with one another. They have about the same relation to each other as lawyer’s fees, red beets and music.

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I have to laugh when I read the back and forth about who sneered at whom in the battle over mainstream macroeconomics.

According to Paul Romer, Chicago’s rejection of MIT-style macroeconomics was a defensive reaction to the sarcasm of Robert Solow. Paul Krugman says no; Dornbusch, Fischer, and others at MIT tried to meet Chicago halfway but “Chicago responded with trash talk.”

Really?!

First, is anyone surprised that economists at Chicago and MIT engaged in sarcasm toward each other’s work? That’s what mainstream economists do all the time. They’re dismissive of the work in other academic disciplines. They ridicule radical and heterodox approaches within economics. And, yes, they engage in trash talk about mainstream theories other than their own. All the time. For as long as I’ve been studying economics. And of course even earlier.

Second, we’re going to now explain the pendulum swings of mainstream macroeconomics, back and forth between more Keynesian versions and more neoclassical versions, according to who sneered at whom? There’s a bit more going on here, including developments inside the discipline and events in the world beyond the academy. The trajectory of mainstream macroeconomics both influenced and was influenced by everything else taking place inside and outside the academy (and I doubt trash-talking between schools of thought had a whole helluva lot to do with it).

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So, what did take place? Basically (and Greg Mankiw [pdf] is a pretty good guide here, at least once you set aside the silly language of scientists and engineers), mainstream macroeconomics (the blue and yellow bars in the chart above) was invented in the late-1940s/early-1950s as neoclassical economists (like Paul Samuelson and John Hicks) attempted to domesticate Keynesian economics and combine it with neoclassical economics, thus creating what came to be called the “neoclassical synthesis.” (In those days, the teaching of mainstream economics started with macroeconomics, thus reflecting the problems of capitalist instability that culminated in the first Great Depression, and then turned to the supply-and-demand framework of neoclassical microeconomics. These days, it’s the reverse: micro before macro.) Chicago, too, was part of the synthesis, to the extent that Milton Friedman and others spoke the same language, although of course they arrived at very different conclusions: while Paul Samuelson and Co. believed they’d solved the problem of instability, through active fiscal and monetary policies, Friedman and Co. preached the virtues of free markets and the problems created by government intervention. It was the visible hand of government intervention versus the invisible hand of laissez-faire.*

In the mid-1970s, a new approach emerged at Chicago—the so-called rational expectations revolution of Robert Lucas and Thomas Sargent—that is best described as neo-neoclassical macroeconomics. The idea was that, since on average economic agents had expectations that coincided with the “real” values in the economy (akin to the “correct” predictions of econometricians), including the outcomes of any and all economic policies, it was simply impossible to surprise rational people systematically. Therefore, government policy aimed at stabilizing the economy was doomed to failure.

The “new Chicago” economists then developed a whole series of macroeconomic models based on perfect information, rational expectations, and instantaneously market-clearing prices—whereby the only problems came from “exogenous shocks.” MIT (and Berkeley and other departments) responded by focusing on asymmetric information, “sticky” prices, and other market imperfections that might lead capitalist economies to less than full employment. It’s what we now call call “new Keynesian” economics.

Those are the limits of the current orthodoxy—the limits of the kinds of models that can be used and of the policies that should be adopted. They are the limits of the debate within mainstream economics.

And whatever sneering takes place between the two sides is, for those of us who practice a different kind of economics, merely a storm in a teacup.

 

*Here I’m referring only to mainstream macroeconomics. All the other approaches, from the Keynesian and Sraffian economics of Cambridge University through Modern Monetary Theory to Marxian economics, were then and continue to be simply sneered at and ridiculed by both MIT and Chicago.

Devil’s dung

Posted: 10 July 2015 in Uncategorized
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Pope Francis’s recent references to money as the “dung of the devil” (or, alternatively, the “devil’s dung“) brought to mind lots of different references (from the etymology of dung in terms of different classes of workers to Freud’s tale of the devil whose gifts of money turn to excrement upon his leaving).

But, at the suggestion of a friend [ht: ja], I also began to imagine how we might retitle basic economics courses in a Catholic university. Consider the following:

Econ 101—Mephistopheles’ Market Manure

Econ 102:—Satanic Sewers of National Economies

or just get right to the point,

all intro-level courses—Beezelbub’s Bourgeois Bullshit

Any other suggestions?

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The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta has confirmed what many of us have suspected for a long time: job tenure is declining not just for millenials, but for workers of all wages.

What we see in this chart—using the 20- to 30-year-olds, for example—is that the median job tenure was four years among those born in 1953 (baby boomers) when they were between 20 and 30 years old. For 20- to 30-year-olds born in 1993 (millennials), however, median job tenure is only one year. Similar—and some even more dramatic—declines occur across cohorts within each age group.

Declining job tenure is not just all about millennials having short attention spans. In fact, there is a greater (five-year) decline in median job tenure between 41- and 50-year-old “Depression babies” (born in 1933) and 41- to 50-year-old GenXers (born in 1973).

The authors of the report dispute the attention-span explanation for declining job tenure. But then they go on to paint a rosy picture of what this means—for workers (“a world of possibilities that our parents and grandparents never dreamt of”!) and for the economy as a whole (“the flexibility of workers seeking their highest rents and the flexibility of firms to seek better matches for their needed skills mean greater productivity—not to mention growth—all around”).

What the authors fail to mention is that declining job tenure across the board means much higher corporate profits (since employers can hire and shed workers more easily) and a lot more work for workers (since they have to spend more time and energy making themselves “attractive” to employers and figuring out how they’re going to survive between jobs).

Declining job tenure—what mainstream economists refer to as “flexible” labor markets—is the natural outcome of the commodification of labor power. The only solution to the problem, then, is to treat people’s ability to work as something other than a commodity. Then, we would have real flexibility in our work and in the rest of our lives.

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Thomas Palley does an admirable job summarizing and discussing the implications of four different stories about the relationship between inequality and the financial crash of 2007-08. The only problem is, he completely overlooks a fifth story about that relationship, one that hinges on the existence and use of the surplus.

According to Palley, there are four major stories of the financial crisis and the role they attribute to income inequality. They are identified with (1) Raghuram Rajan (according to whom inequality has not really been a problem per se but the government responded to populist pressures to do something about growing inequality by extending home mortgages to unwarranted buyers), (2) Michael Kumhoff and Romain Rancière (who developed a model in which worsening income distribution, caused by declining union bargaining power, led to a persistent surge in borrowing as workers tried to maintain their living standards, which rendered the economy fragile to a financial sector shock), (3) Gauti B. Eggertsson and Paul Krugman (who leave out inequality entirely and focus instead on the idea that a financial bubble drove excessive borrowing and leverage in the US economy—which, when the bubble burst in 2007-08, led to a financial crisis and a deep recession, which in turn prompted a wave of deleveraging as borrowers shifted to rebuilding their balance sheets and excess saving that reduced aggregate demand), and (4) Palley himself (who , in his “structural Keynesian” account, focuses on the shift from wage-led growth to neoliberal financialization).

Thus, according to Palley,

Income inequality did not cause the financial crisis. The crisis was caused by the implosion of the asset price and credit bubbles which had been off-setting and obscuring the impact of inequality. However, once the financial bubble burst and financial markets ceased filling the demand gap created by income inequality, the demand effects of inequality came to the fore.

Viewed in that light, stagnation is the joint-product of the long-running credit bubble, the financial crisis and income inequality. The credit bubble left behind a large debt over-hang; the financial crisis destroyed the credit-worthiness of millions; and income inequality has created a “structural” demand shortage.

Palley then proceeds to discuss the implications, for economic policy, of each one of these four stories.

The entire essay is worth a good, careful read. But let me focus here just on the causal stories, and leave for another post the implications of the stories for policy.

While I am sympathetic to Palley’s critique of the other three stories, what’s missing from his own account is the role inequality played in the financial crisis itself.

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Consider, for example, what happened to profits and wages in the long run-up to the crash of 2007-08. What we can see, from 1970 onward, is a steady decline in the wage share of national income and an initially halting and then uneven increase in corporate profits (measured here in terms of “net operating surplus”).* The argument is that the decline in the wage share led to increased profits both directly and indirectly: directly, as wage costs for producing enterprises declined; and indirectly, as some of those corporate profits were recycled through financial enterprises to lend to workers, thereby further boosting the profit share of national income. That combination fueled the housing and asset bubbles that eventually burst in 2007-08.

So, on my account—on my structural class account—inequality played an important role in creating the conditions for the most recent financial crash. And now, during the Second Great Depression, the class inequality that was such an important factor before is on the rise again.

Now, I understand, that’s not a complete story about the relationship between inequality and the crash of 2007-08. But it’s a start. It shows that such a story is possible. And, as I will explain in another post, it has implications for economic policy very different from the other four stories out there.

*My chart doesn’t show all of what I consider to be the economic (class) surplus. To get there, we’d have to transfer some of what is included in wages and salaries (e.g., the salaries of CEOs, which put them in the top 1 percent) to “net operating surplus.” I’m still searching for a good way to do that.

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For most mainstream economists, culture is either a commodity like any other (and therefore subject to the same kind of supply-and-demand analysis) or a reminder term (e.g., to explain different levels of economic development, when all the usual explanations—based on preferences, technology, and endowments—have failed).

For Raymond Williams [ht: ja], culture was something very different.

Williams makes it clear early on that if he could pick only one term to investigate, it would be “culture.” The word comes from the Latin verb colere and originally meant “to cultivate,” in the sense of tending farmland. A “noun of process,” it gradually expanded to include human development, and by the late 18th century, people commonly used “culture” to mean how we cultivate ourselves. Following the Industrial Revolution, however, the word took on a new emphasis: It came to mean both an entire way of life (as in “folk” or “Japanese” culture) and a realm of aesthetic or intellectual activity that stood apart from, or above, the everyday (basically, what people parody when they say “culchah”). Over several hundred pages, Williams shows how dozens of writers developed these senses of “culture” in order to explain, and manage, the changes remaking British society in the 19th century—from rapid industrialization to the new markets it created for literature, and from land enclosure to overseas colonization.

Williams (along with, of course, many others, including Stuart Hall and Edward Said) redefined the meaning of culture, which provided “a record of change, and of the clashes of interest that drive that change.” Williams and the other “cultural materialists” of the time challenged both traditional humanities scholarship (which sought to identify and cultivate the elitist “finer values”) and traditional Marxism (according to which culture either reflected the “economic base” or, in its mass commodified form, forced workers to accept capitalist values).

Implicitly, Williams and the others also challenged mainstream economists’ version of culture, by emphasizing the idea that culture both registers the clashes of interest in society (culture represents, therefore, not just objects but the struggles over meaning within society) and stamps its mark on those interests and clashes (and in this sense is “performative,” since it modifies and changes those meanings).

That’s the approach I took in my presentation last year in my talk on “Culture Beyond Capitalism” in the opening session of the 18th International Conference on Cultural Economics, sponsored by the Association for Cultural Economics International, at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

The basic idea is that culture offers to us a series of images and stories—audio and visual, printed and painted—that point the way toward alternative ways of thinking about and organizing economic and social life. That give us a glimpse of how things might be different from what they are. Much more so than mainstream academic economics has been interested in or able to do, even after the spectacular debacle of the most recent economic crisis, and even now in the midst of what I have to come the Second Great Depression.

And it was in honor of Williams that I accepted the invitation to write the entry on “Capitalism” for Keywords for American Cultural Studies, and later, with Maliha Safri, to launch the Keywords series in the journal Rethinking Marxism.