Posts Tagged ‘exchange’


Mark Tansey, “The Occupation” (1984)

It’s not the best of times. In fact, it feels increasingly like the worst of times. I’m thinking, at the moment, of the savage attacks in Pittsburgh (at the Tree of Life synagogue) and Louisville, Kentucky (where 2 black people were recently gunned down by a white shooter at a Kroger store) as well as the election of Jair Bolsonaro (who represents, in equal parts, Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump) in Brazil. So, it seems appropriate to change gears and, instead of continuing my series on utopia, to turn my attention to its opposite: dystopia. 

Mainstream economics has long been guided by a utopianism—at both the micro and macro levels. In microeconomics, the utopian promise is that, if the prices of goods and services are allowed to reach their market equilibrium, everyone gets what they pay for, everyone is equal, and everyone benefits. Similarly, the shared goal of mainstream macroeconomics is that, with the appropriate institutions and policies, capitalism can be characterized by and should be celebrated for achieving full employment and price stability.

But that utopianism has been disrupted in recent years, by a series of warnings that reflect the emergence of a much more dystopian view among some (but certainly not all) mainstream economists. For example, the crash of 2007-08 and the Second Great Depression have raised the specter of “secular stagnation,” the idea that, for the foreseeable future, economic growth—and therefore the prospect of full employment—is probably going to be much lower than it was in the decades leading up to the global economic crisis. Moreover, what little growth is expected will most likely be accompanied by financial stability. Then, there’s Robert J. Gordon, who has expressed his concern that economic growth is slowing down, it has been for decades, and there’s no prospect for a resumption of fast economic growth in the foreseeable future because of a dearth of technical innovations. And, of course, Thomas Piketty has demonstrated the obscene and still-growing inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth and expressed his worry that current trends will, if they continue, culminate in a return to the réntier incomes and inherited wealth characteristic of “patrimonial capitalism.”

Such negative views are not confined to economics, of course. We all remember how readers sought out famous dystopian stories—for example, by Sinclair Lewis and George Orwell—that connected the anxieties that arose during the early days of the Trump administration to apprehensions the world has experienced before.

However, Sophie Gilbert [ht: ja] suggests that, over the last couple of years, fictional dystopias have fundamentally changed.

They’re largely written by, and concerned with, women. They imagine worlds ravaged by climate change, worlds in which humanity’s progress unravels. Most significantly, they consider reproduction, and what happens when societies try to legislate it.

She’s referring to speculative-fiction books that parallel the themes in and draw inspiration from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood—novels such as Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, and Bina Shah’s Before She Sleeps. 

With the help of Jo Lindsay Walton, coeditor of the British Science Fiction Association’s journal Vector and editor of the Economic Science Fiction and Fantasy database, I have discovered another burgeoning literature in recent years, representing and critically engaging the dystopian economics in fantasy and science fiction.

A good example of a dystopian scenario is “Dream Job,” by Seamus Sullivan. As the editor explains, it is a “cutting parable for a generation that undersleeps and overworks to get underpaid—where paying your student loans is quite actually a waking nightmare.” The protagonist, Aishwarya, lives in Bengaluru and works for low wages in a call center. In order to supplement her income, to pay back her loans, she attaches wireless electrodes that arrive by courier from SleepTyte and sleeps for an extra hour or two a day on behalf of someone else (such as as banker in Chicago), who gets more waking hours in the day without feeling tired. An eight-hour shift pays more than the call center and her customers tip her well. But even though Aishwarya manages to save enough rent for her own apartment, the increasing number of hours she’s spending sleeping for someone else leads to her own ruin, as her body deteriorates and she can no longer control the break between her customers’ dreams and her own living nightmare.

As Robert Kiely and Sean O’Brien explain, while much twentieth-century science fiction tends to traffic in a certain techno-optimism, a growing body of recent work looks to counter that narrative and emphasize the negative effects of the existing (or, in the near future, imaginable) technologies of capitalism, especially increased automation and the rise of digital platforms.* The themes include, in addition to the capitalist takeover of sleep time, the automation and digitization of both the labor process and the distribution of commodities, the proliferation of new border zones and heightened constraints on the circulation of laboring bodies, the reappropriation by capital of ameliorative measures such as the universal basic income, the development of performance-enhancing drugs for the workplace, the development of surveillance technologies and a concomitant increase in hacking tools designed to evade detection, and the intensification of climate change. The result is a dystopian landscape of impoverishment and impasse,

not a transitional space on its way to postcapitalism, but an immiserated space going nowhere at all, a wasted landscape of inequality and insecurity built on the backs of precarious workers and hardwired to keep them in their place at the bottom of the slagheap.

The fact is, utopian literature has always been accompanied by its dystopian opposite—each, in their own way, showing how the existing world falls short of its promise. Both genres also serve to cast familiar things in a strange light, so that we begin to notice them as if for the first time. What distinguishes dystopian “science friction” is the warning that if things continue on this course, if elements of the economy’s current logic remain unchecked and alternatives are not imagined and implemented, the outcomes may be catastrophic both individually and for society as a whole.

As is turns out, mainstream economic theory, when viewed through the lens of speculative fiction, is replete with its own dystopian narratives. As Walton points out, the story of the origin of money offered by mainstream economists—that money was invented in order to surmount the problems associated with barter—is not only a fiction, which runs counter to what anthropologists and others have documented to be the real, messy origins of money as a way of keeping track of debts and as a result of the actions of sovereigns and the state; it rests on a dystopian vision of a money-less economy.** The usual argument is that barter requires the double coincidence of wants, the unlikely situation of two people, each having a good that the other wants at the right time and place to make an exchange. Without money, producers (who are always-already presumed to be self-interested and separate, in a social division of labor) are forced to either curtail both their production and consumption, because they can’t count on exchanging the extra goods and services they produce for the other goods they want to consume. People would have to spend time searching for others to trade with, a huge waste of resources. Barter is therefore inconvenient and inefficient—a presumed dystopia that can only be superseded by finding something that can serve as a means of exchange, unit of account, and store of value. Hence, money.

The barter myth is eager to argue that money arises from the uncoordinated, self-interested behavior of individuals, without any role for communal deliberation or governmental authority. Simultaneously, it tries to insinuate that money is a completely natural part of who and what we are. It tells us that learning to use money isn’t too different from an infant learning to move around, or to make their thoughts and feelings known. In other words, money has to be the way it is, because we are the way we are.

The theory and policies of mainstream economics are based on a variety of other dystopian stories. Consider, for example, the minimum wage. According to mainstream economists (like Gregory Mankiw), while the aim of the minimum wage may be to help poor workers, it actually hurts them, because it creates a situation where the quantity demanded of labor is less than the quantity supplied of labor. In other words, a minimum wage may raise the incomes of those workers who have jobs but it lowers the incomes of workers who can’t find jobs. Those workers, who mainstream economists presume would be employed at lower wages (because they have little experience, few skills, and thus low productivity), would be better off by being allowed to escape the dystopia of a regulated labor market as a result of eliminating the minimum wage. Similar dystopian stories undergird mainstream theory and policy in many other areas, from rent control (which, it is argued, creates a shortage of housing and long waiting lists) to international trade (which, if regulated, e.g., by tariffs, would lead to higher prices for imported goods and less trade for the world as a whole).

Dystopian stories thus serve as the foundation for much of mainstream economics—from the origins of monetary exchange to the effects of regulating otherwise-free markets. Their aim is to make an economy without money, or a monetary economy that is subject to government regulations, literally unthinkable.

But, Walton reminds us, “the relationship between dystopia and utopia is intensely slippery.” First, because it’s possible to go across the grain and actually want to inhabit what mainstream economists consider to be a dystopian landscape—for example, by embracing the forms of gift exchange that can prosper in a world without money. Second, once everything is torn down, it is possible to imagine other ways things can be put back together. Thus, for example, while Laura Horn argues that the ubiquitous theme of corporate dystopia in popular science fiction generally only allows for heroic individual acts of resistance, it is also possible to provide a sense of what comes “after the corporation,” such as “alternative visions of organising collectively owned, or at least worker-directed, production.”***

Dystopian thinking can therefore serve as a springboard both for criticizing the speculative fictions of mainstream economics and for imagining an “archaeology of the future” (to borrow Fredric Jameson’s characterization) that entices us to look beyond capitalism and to imagine alternative ways of organizing economic and social life.****


*Robert Kiely and Sean O’Brien, “Science Friction,” Vector, no. 288 (Fall 2018): 34-41.

**Jo Lindsay Walton, “Afterword: Cockayne Blues,” in Strange Economics: Economic Speculative Fiction, ed. David F. Shultz (TdotSpec, 2018), 301-326.

***Laura Horn (“Future Incorporated,” in Economic Science Fictions, ed. William Davies [London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018], pp.  41-58).

****Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005).



The argument I’ve been making during this series on utopia is that the utopian moment of the Marxian alternative to mainstream economics is critique.*

Let me explain. All modern economic theories have a utopian moment. In the case of mainstream economics, that moment is a full-blown utopianism—the idea that there is, or at least in principle can be, a perfectly functioning economic and social order. Such an order is both envisioned as a model within the theory (often by stipulating the minimum set of theoretical requirements) and advanced as the goal of economic policies (which move the economy to, or at least toward, the utopia). In this sense, utopia—of sovereign individuals, free markets, and private property—is the fundamental premise and promise of mainstream economic theory.

The Marxian approach is otherwise. Certainly Marxian economists (and social thinkers generally) imagine that the world can and should be radically different from what currently exists. They simply wouldn’t engage in their intellectual and political work if that weren’t the case. But, instead of drawing up a blueprint of what such an alternative might look like, Marxists are engaged in a “ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” It is a ruthless criticism of both mainstream economic theory and of the economic and social system celebrated by mainstream economists.

This is an argument I’ve made many times, in different ways, over the course of my various talks (e.g, here), papers (e.g., here and here), and posts on utopia in recent years. Here, I want to take the argument one step further. What distinguishes Marxian theory from both mainstream economics (and, for matter, from other criticisms of mainstream economics) is that is based on a materialist critique. That is its utopian moment.

As I see it, the method of materialist critique is both dialectical and historical.** It is dialectical to the extent that it involves the interpretation of economic categories—such as value, productivity, profit and much else—precisely as they are grounded in, deployed and disseminated within, the existing intellectual and social order. It takes those concepts as its own. But it doesn’t simply accept the existing interpretations of those categories but, instead, transforms them into their opposites. In other words, the critical acceptance of those categories is simultaneously their condemnation.

Let me offer a concrete example of what I have in mind. Both mainstream economic theory and capitalism operate on the basis of a notion of free and fair exchange. Each transaction is seen to be a voluntary exchange of goods and services between individuals who offer or receive a sum equal to the value of the commodity in question. A materialist critique starts from that category, not because every transaction holds to the rule of free and fair exchange in the real world (there are many exceptions to that rule, such as monopoly power, which even mainstream economists and defenders of capitalism will acknowledge), but because it is the stated premise of both mainstream economic theory and capitalism (it is their shared utopianism, in the sense I discuss above). Even presuming we’re referring to a system in which every exchange is free and fair, it is possible to show that a tiny minority at the top (the members of the boards of directors of corporations) is engaged in a social theft from workers (who perform but do not appropriate their surplus labor), with all the attendant conditions and consequences of a system based on class exploitation. Therefore, a materialist critique, which starts from the prevailing idea of free and fair exchange, arrives at the opposite conclusion—that capitalist exchange forms part of an economic and social system that is anything but free and fair.***

The method of materialist critique also has an important historical dimension. It focuses on the ways both economic ideas and economic systems change over time, often with radical disruptions between them. Thus, for example, the theories used by economists today (and not only, if we allow for everyday economic representations) are radically different from themselves (in the sense that the terrain of economics is defined by multiple, diverse and incommensurable, concepts and methods) and from theories that have existed in the past (beginning with classical political economy and including the theoretical revolutions within mainstream economics as well as their heterodox counterparts). Similarly, capitalism has changed over time—both within its own history (capitalism today is different from what it was in the middle of the nineteenth century) and as it represents a break from other, noncapitalist systems (such as feudalism, slavery, and so on). A materialist critique focuses on such disruptions and divergences over time, thereby creating the possibility of other radical changes, such as an end to capitalism and the emergence of new, noncapitalist ways of organizing economic and social life.

The most famous example in the Marxian tradition is the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Notwithstanding the wide-ranging debate about the causes and consequences of that transition (among such figures as Maurice Dobb, Paul Sweezy, Robert Brenner, and Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff), the fact is capitalism had a definite beginning as it emerged from the crises of feudalism in Western Europe (and therefore didn’t always exist, as mainstream economists often presume and proclaim), which also makes it possible to imagine an end to capitalism (based, of course, on the accumulation and aggregation of political and social forces that are opposed to capitalism and imagine and seek to create the conditions for noncapitalist economic and social institutions). Much the same is true in economic thought: mainstream economics today (neoclassical microeconomics and Keynesian macroeconomics) represents a radical break from previous mainstream economic theories (such as the classical political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo), as well as the various alternatives to mainstream economics that have emerged alongside it from the very beginning (which are often overlooked in “official,” mainstream histories of economic thought). A materialist critique therefore highlights the absence of history—the history of ideas as well as the history of economic systems—within mainstream economics and capitalism itself.

In the way I am defining materialist critique, it does not represent a simple opposition to contemporary thought and society. On the contrary, it is grounded in them, using their categories as starting points with the aim of substantially and radically transforming them.

If materialist critique represents the utopian moment of Marxian theory, it stands opposed to the specialized knowledge of mainstream economics (and, by extension, of the rest of the modern social sciences) as well as to traditional interpretations of Marxian theory. It differs from contemporary mainstream economics in that it seeks to transform—both dialectically and historically—the existing set of categories instead of accepting them as the given parameters of economic and social life. It of course uses those knowledges as raw materials but only for the purpose of turning them into their opposites. And it is distinguished from the precepts and protocols of dialectical and historical materialism in that it is rooted in the categories that pertain to mainstream economics and capitalism, in order to do battle on that terrain, not a set of sui generis categories (often governed by a humanist anthropology or rational discourse) to establish a new and different science comparable to mainstream economics.

And to be clear, materialist critique is not the same thing as economism (with which materialism is often conflated). On the contrary. In fact, materialist critique represents a ruthless criticism of economism not because it gives too much importance to the economy, but because it gives it too narrow a scope. Economism takes the economy as a given, transmitting its effects to individuals and to the rest of the social structure—instead of focusing on the problem of the complex, changing relationship between the economy and individual and social lives.

In the end, the goal of a materialist critique is to denaturalize and thus disrupt the existing common sense—within both economic thought and capitalism—with the aim of radically transforming the existing theoretical and social reality. It doesn’t accomplish this alone, of course. Those who are engaged in a materialist critique as well as their specific objects form a dynamic, dialectical unity with the exploited classes as both an expression of the concrete historical situation and a force to stimulate change. Nor are there any guarantees, from either side of the relationship or in the often-tense unity itself.

Notwithstanding its aleatory nature, the process of materialist critique starts with the categories that dominate economic thought and the economy itself in order to transform them into their opposites, thus creating new intellectual and political possibilities. The new openings created by materialist critique represent the utopian horizon of Marxian theory.


*The series, thus far, consists of posts on the Bitcoin bubble, the right to be lazypopulism, the economics of controlutopian socialisminequalityinternational trade, healthcare (here and here), the disaster in Puerto Ricoepistemologyvalue theorymacroeconomicseconomic developmentmarketstechnology, work, and mathematics.

**Besides Marx’s own writings, an essay that serves as the catalyst for some of my ideas in this post is Max Horkheimer’s “Traditional and Critical Theory” [ht: db], reprinted in his Critical Theory: Selected Essays, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell and others (New York: Continuum, 2002).

***Moreover, such a system is neither free nor fair for both capitalists and workers. Each is subject to the compulsions and coercions embedded in such a system, albeit in a different way.


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Over the course of the last two days, I’ve discussed mean gifts (which promise significant tax relief only to a small group of corporations and wealthy individuals) and mean exchanges (which leave middle-class Americans with a declining share of national income).

Now, thanks to recently completed Reuters investigation, we’re forced to confront the reality in the United States of mean exchanges that transform generous donations into desperate, mean gifts. I’m referring to the largely unregulated trade in body parts.

The selling of body parts—heads, knees, feet, torsos, and entire bodies—actually begins with the gifting of the bodies of deceased Americans, who have decided to donate their bodies to science. But in many cases it’s a mean gift, not because of the intentions of the givers (who in many cases do want to contribute to the advancement of the scientific study of the human body), but because body brokers often prey on poor people (who can’t afford the price of a proper burial).

The industry’s business model hinges on access to a large supply of free bodies, which often come from the poor. In return for a body, brokers typically cremate a portion of the donor at no charge. By offering free cremation, some deathcare industry veterans say, brokers appeal to low-income families at their most vulnerable. Many have drained their savings paying for a loved one’s medical treatment and can’t afford a traditional funeral.

“People who have financial means get the chance to have the moral, ethical and spiritual debates about which method to choose,” said Dawn Vander Kolk, an Illinois hospice social worker. “But if they don’t have money, they may end up with the option of last resort: body donation.”

Then, the body brokers—aka non-transplant tissue banks (that are distinct from organ and tissue transplant banks, which the U.S. government closely regulates)—turn around and sell or rent bodies and body parts for use in research or education.*

“The current state of affairs is a free-for-all,” said Angela McArthur, who directs the body donation program at the University of Minnesota Medical School and formerly chaired her state’s anatomical donation commission. “We are seeing similar problems to what we saw with grave-robbers centuries ago,” she said, referring to the 19th-century practice of obtaining cadavers in ways that violated the dignity of the dead.

“I don’t know if I can state this strongly enough,” McArthur said. “What they are doing is profiting from the sale of humans.”

The body brokers can charge what they want to for cadavers or deceased body parts. They negotiate prices with with research facilities—$250 for a hand, $450 for a knee, $5000 for a whole body—and even put their inventory on sale when they become overstocked.


The result is a profitable exchange for the body brokers—who of course are getting their raw materials for free—and the destruction of the gifts people have attempted to make to science.

Gail Williams-Sears, a nurse in Newport News, Virginia, said neither she nor her father realized Science Care might profit when he donated his body before his death in 2013. John M. Williams Jr, who lived 88 years, served in World War II and the Korean War, earned a master’s degree in social work and spent decades in Maryland state government advocating for children.

“Dad was very frugal,” his daughter said. “He thought it was ridiculous to pay a large amount of money to be put in the ground.” His decision to donate his body was also motivated by a lifelong interest in good health, his Christian faith and science fiction books and movies, she said. Whenever he was admitted to the hospital, he made sure to bring the donor documents with him, in case he died, his daughter said.

“I don’t remember anything in the literature that said anything about them selling his body,” she said. “I thought it was just his body going for research and it wasn’t to get gains off of someone’s charity. Well, I guess we’ve gotten to a world where everybody just makes money off of everything.”

The United States is now based on an economy in which many people can’t afford to die, and whose final gifts to science are annulled by the profit-making exchanges of largely unregulated body brokers.


*Selling hearts, kidneys and tendons for transplant is illegal in the United States. But no federal law governs the sale of cadavers or body parts to academic, medical, or scientific facilities.


Yesterday, I discussed the mean-spiritedness of the Republican tax cuts—which are being sold as a gift to the middle-class but, in reality, represent a massive transfer to a small group of large corporations and wealthy individuals.

But, of course, the real violence associated with the tax-cut gift occurs before federal taxes are even levied, in the pre-tax distribution of income.

As is clear from the chart above, since the mid-1970s, the share of income captured by the top 1 percent (the red line, measured on the right-hand side) has almost doubled, rising from 10.6 percent to over 20 percent. Meanwhile, the share of income going to the middle 40 percent (the blue line, on the left) has eroded, falling from 45.2 percent to 40.4 percent.

But that’s not enough for those at the top. They want even more—and their growing share of the surplus has given them more power to elect the candidates and write the rules to obtain even more income, both before and after taxes.

Meanwhile, many in the languishing middle-class, having given up hope for any improvement in their pre-tax income share, threw in their lot with the Republicans and their promise of tax relief.

They now know that that’s a dead end, too.

The American middle-class continues to lose out, both when they exchange their ability to work for an income in markets and afterwards, when they pay their taxes to the government.

Meanwhile, the tiny group at the top has been able to rig both mechanisms, exchange and taxes, to capture and keep more of the surplus.

Something clearly has to give.


It’s that time of the year again, when thoughts turn to the impossibility of the gift.

Usually (as in the ghost of Christmases past, e.g., here, here, and here), attention is given over to neoclassical economists, who bemoan the inefficiencies caused by the normal pattern of gift-giving and recommend instead that money be offered, so that recipients can buy their own presents.

This year, things are a bit different. Psychologists are the ones who are called on to identify the impossibility of the gift. In their view (e.g., the research by Jeff Galak, Julian Givi, and Elanor F. Williams and Yan Zhang and Nicholas Epley), as it turns out, much the same problem arises: givers can’t possibly know what the recipients want. 

But, psychologists add, the reverse it also true: recipients often don’t know the motivations of the givers. “It’s the thought that counts” only counts when recipients are somehow prompted to consider a giver’s act of generosity.

If gift receivers consider a gift giver’s thoughts only when triggered to do so, then gift givers are likely to have difficulty correctly anticipating the impact of their own thoughts and intentions. Gift givers, after all, have a very different perspective on the exchange than do gift receivers. Gift givers do not experience the automatic evaluation that comes from receiving a gift and thus would not be triggered to use their thoughts to predict a receiver’s feelings and evaluations in the same way as gift receivers. Thoughts may indeed count for gift receivers, but not necessarily in ways that givers will predict. The capacity to anticipate a receiver’s feelings and evaluations is a critical aspect of gift exchanges because maximizing the receiver’s happiness and satisfaction is arguably the most common objective in gift exchanges. . . Any gap between a gift giver’s predictions and a receiver’s actual evaluations will undermine the primary goal of gift exchanges.

In both cases, when they don’t know what recipients want and try to have their own good intentions recognized, givers are prone to make mistakes in choosing the appropriate gift.

The researchers therefore step in to try to help them, by suggesting gift givers make better decisions: either “choose gifts based on how valuable they will be to the recipient throughout his or her ownership of the gift, rather than how good a gift will seem when the recipient opens it” or “give priority to choosing gifts that receivers actually like rather than gifts that reveal thoughtfulness.”

What none of the teams of psychologists considers (just like the neoclassical economists before them) is that when the gift is something that is offered out of generosity, without an interest or concern in reciprocity, then as soon as the gift is identified as a gift, with the meaning of a gift, then it is cancelled as a gift. The gift, which creates a debt of a return—of an indeterminate reciprocity, concerning when and how—is thereby annulled. And that’s true even with the best of intentions or choices on the part of gift-givers.

But, I hasten to add, that is also the case with monetary exchange, since it is also replete with diverse and conflicting motivations, desires, and concerns on both sides of the transaction. As with gift exchange, those on one side (e.g., buyers) have a very different perspective on the exchange from those on the other side (e.g., sellers).

Consider the example of purchasing a car (which I recently did). The buyer has no idea what goes into the intentions and behavior of the seller: are they attempting to inform the seller of the qualities of the various vehicles being considered, looking to push unnecessary options or extended warranties, worried about meeting their monthly quota, or subject to pressure from the dealership to boost profits? For their part, the seller doesn’t know anything about their opposite number: from the financial situation of the buyer to what they’re looking for in a vehicle, not to mention the condition of any trade-in, the possibility of repeat business, and so on.

And, of course, both buyer and seller are constituted, and transformed in an unpredictable manner, during the course of the long, complex relationship that develops before, during, and after the purchase. It’s a relationship that, at various times during the transaction, both invokes and undermines notions of mutual beneficence, trust, concern, calculation, and much else.

Errors are made, then, in monetary exchange no less than in gift exchange. The goals on both sides of the transaction are only partly fulfilled even when the exchange is completed. Sellers can walk away with another vehicle sold but they don’t know, under all the conflicting pressures, if they did the “right thing” (for the buyer, themselves, their employer, and so on). And buyers, after they drive away, will be affected by all the qualities and features (both positive and negative) they were only dimly aware of when they bought the vehicle, not to mention the comments and questions from family members and friends, which influence how they look at and appreciate their new vehicle. And then of course there’s the depleted bank account or the loan, which determines what the transaction means in terms of their own and others’ wealth and property, the effects on their financial well-being, and what exactly was traded when the vehicle was purchased.

And so we muddle on—exchanging gifts, engaging in monetary transactions, or, as is often the case this time of year, combining the two (purchasing commodities with money to give as gifts)—even when we know the gift and commodity exchange, at least as modeled by mainstream economists and psychologists, are in fact impossible.


You’d think a Harvard economics professor would be able to do better than invoke horizontal equity as the sole argument for reducing the U.S. inheritance tax.

But not Gregory Mankiw, who uses the silly parable of the Frugals and the Profligates to make his case for a low tax rate on the estates of the wealthiest 0.2 percent of Americans who actually owe any estate tax.*

I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether or not it’s worth spending the time to compose a column on a tax that affects such a tiny percentage of rich—very rich—American households. And then to argue not for raising the tax, but for lowering it.

Me, I want to raise a few, more general issues about how mainstream economists like Mankiw think about inheritance taxes.

First, Mankiw presents one principle—horizontal equity, the “equal treatment of equals”—and never even mentions the other major tax principle—vertical equity, the “unequal treatment of unequals,” the idea that people with higher incomes should pay more taxes. Certainly, on the vertical criterion, those who receive large inheritances (for doing nothing more than being born into and raised within the right family) should pay taxes at a much higher rate than those who do not.

Second, even the notion of horizontal equity—that equals must be treated fairly—depends on an assumption that we each have come fairly to where we now stand. If that principle is violated (as it often is, e.g., because an estate represents the accumulated wealth based on other people’s labor, their surplus labor), then we need to ask if there is even an a priori principle of horizontal equity. The alternative is to judge everyone’s entitlements and burdens, including those occasioned by large inheritances, according to a single theory of equity or justice.

Finally, and perhaps even more important, both the horizontal and vertical equity standards presume that tax justice can be achieved by minimizing the coercive relation between the citizen and the state, which is then counterposed to the freedom guaranteed by a system of voluntary exchange. As Paolo Silvestri explains,

if the problem of the legitimacy of taxation as coercion is posed in terms of ‘voluntary vs coercion’, or freedom vs coercion, the maximum that one can ask it is to minimize coercion and maximize possibilities for voluntary exchanges, and / or minimize the role and size of government and leave as much room as possible to the private sector.

The alternative, of course, is to imagine a very different economic and political relationship, one in which both exchange and taxation—and thus notions of freedom and obligation—are understood in terms of an alternative logic. Consider, for example, the gift. If there is indeed something that the literature on gift economies has revealed it is the fact that social reciprocity—literally, creating and reproducing social relationships through gift exchange—configures the relationship between freedom and obligation in a manner quite different from that presumed by Mankiw and other mainstream economists.

What Silvestri makes clear is the circulation of the gift involves the free recognition (or non-recognition) of the obligation or debt occasioned by the gift, “in the sense that human freedom is asserted as such at the very moment in which it recognizes (or not) his debt.” Taxation, in particular, can be represented as an act of “giving back” to society, the recognition of a relationship of living together beyond the family—which, while never finally solving the tension between obligation and freedom, creates and recreates relations of mutual trust and living in common. It thus redefines the issue of equal or unequal return—the accounting framework of giving and taking embedded in notions of horizontal and vertical equity—in favor of asymmetry and an unending cycle of producing and resolving instances of justice and injustice across society.**

To which the only possible answer is further giving—and thus the freedom of those who have managed to amass great fortunes to comply with the obligation, after they have died, to pay taxes at a high rate based on large accumulations of the social surplus.


*There are many other facts about the estate tax Mankiw conveniently leaves out (according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities): the effective tax rate is much lower than the statutory rate, only a handful of family-owned farms and businesses owe any estate tax, the largest estates consist mostly of “unrealized” capital gains that have never been taxed, most other rich countries levy some form of estate tax, and the estate tax is the most progressive part of the U.S. tax code.

**My concern here is with the inheritance tax. Silvestri takes his argument in a related but different direction: “the European economic crisis, the restrictive fiscal policies and their social consequences [that] have done nothing but to sharpen the citizen’s distrust in such legal-political institutions, increased their resentments, and even undermined the very possibility of a democratic discussion on taxes.”

Solidarity Economy picture_wksp_front

I’m all in favor of sharing—and even, in places, a sharing economy.*

But I suspect the current app-assisted sharing economy is just another one of those ideas that the twenty-somethings who work in Silicon Valley have dreamed up and celebrated because it satisfies their own consumption needs. It’s an idea that relies on individual ownership and rational calculation of returns to ownership. Besides, as James Surowiecki concludes,

It also means no benefits, no steady paycheck, and the need to always be hustling; in that sense, it fits all too well with the free-agent nation we’re increasingly becoming. Sharing, it turns out, is often a hell of a lot of work.

Much more interesting is the solidarity economy, where people come together as collectivities to create new, cooperative economic institutions, where they decide as a group how and why to produce, exchange, consume, and distribute—since each moment affects all the others. Which highlights the problem of the sharing economy: it changes consumption but leaves everything just as it was before.

And it’s a helluva lot of individual work.

*A friend and I have long been discussing the irrationality of everyone on the Mountain owning their own tractors, instead of everyone sharing the use of one jointly owned tractor.