Posts Tagged ‘exploitation’

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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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Should capitalists plan on putting The Doors on their karaoke machines?

According to Paul Mason they should. Me, I’m not convinced.

Before discussing Mason’s argument, let me get a few things out of the way. First, Mason implies he invented the word “postcapitalism,” which makes as much sense as the idea that Al Gore invented the internet. (But maybe Mason gives credit to the long line of other postcapitalist thinkers in the book, which I’ll have to read when it’s published.) Second, I’ve long been suspicious of technological determinist arguments, that is, the attempt to explain history and society (mostly or solely) on the basis of changes in technology. (That’s not to say technology doesn’t matter; just that it’s a mistake to treat it as the essential cause of everything else.) Finally, the bit about Marx’s “Fragment on Machines” (pdf) represents a terrible misreading. (The passages from the Grundrisse are not, as Mason would have us believe, about “an economy in which the main role of machines is to produce, and the main role of people is to supervise them,” but a form or stage of capitalism in which laborers become appendages of machines as a condition for the existence of more, relative surplus-value.)

There is, in fact, a great deal to appreciate in Mason’s discussion. I’m thinking, in particular, of his critique of neoliberalism (which “has morphed into a system programmed to inflict recurrent catastrophic failures” and to create mostly “low-value, long-hours jobs”) and the problems mainstream economists have had in making sense of both information (since they start with the presumption of scarcity) and the rise of new kinds of economies (such as parallel currencies, time banks, cooperatives and self-managed spaces, which they mostly ignore as irrelevant to the “real” economy). I even like Mason’s discussion of the new opportunities for collaboration and the reduction of work time created by recent changes in information technology (although many of us are actually forced to have the freedom to perform more, not less, labor as a result of digital information and information-based automation).

For me, the biggest problem with Mason’s treatment is his two-part argument: that capitalism will necessarily fail when it comes to dealing with new information technologies and that such technologies will necessarily usher in a new, noncapitalist economic and social order, ushered in by “a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being”). I just don’t see it.

Let’s consider each of the two parts in order. First, the idea that capitalism will come crashing down as information grows. The key element, for Mason (and for many others before him, such as Jeremy Rifkin), is that the new communication technologies are reducing the marginal (per-unit) cost of producing and sending information goods to near zero, which means that if information goods are to be distributed at their marginal cost of production (zero) they cannot be created and produced by capitalist firms that use revenues obtained from sales to consumers to cover their costs and to realize profits. And that’s the rub: it is precisely the existence of private property (and the other conditions of existence of private commodity production) that keeps the cost of information from going to zero. Information may “want to be free” and capitalist property is certainly an obstacle to the flow of more information but that doesn’t mean information is or will be costlessly produced or utilized. For every Wikipedia there are hundreds of Microsofts—and thousands of other capitalist enterprises that utilize proprietary information to produce still other commodities.

The other side of the argument is thus also questionable: there’s nothing about new information technologies that necessarily lead to forms of economic organization different from or beyond capitalism. Would but that were the case! It’s certainly possible that a democratically organized, worker-owned enterprise would be able to take advantage of networking and other new forms of organizing information but the mere existence of such information technologies does not bring new forms of noncapitalist enterprise (or other socialist or communist forms of economic organization) into existence. I do think we need to pay attention to the way “educated and connected” human beings are utilizing new information technologies (as I often remind my students, they permit such activities as “stealing” the digital information in music and videos and then “sharing” that information within and between communities). But, we need to remember, lots of people have organized noncapitalist forms of economic organization long before the new information technologies were imagined, and they’ll continue to do so (perhaps in different forms) within and at the margins of “cognitive capitalism.”

But to get there—to allow such noncapitalist forms of economic organization to be imagined and put into practice—we need more than new information technologies. We need a ruthless critique of the existing economic order and forms of political organization (aka a political party) to produce utopian discourses and concrete interventions to move us in that direction.

Addendum

While I’m on the topic of postcapitalism, let me also take up the case for socialist recently made by Gar Alperovitz and Thomas M. Hanna. Once again, I’m sympathetic—especially since the more talk about socialism these days the better. And Alperovitz and Hanna do make a convincing case for public ownership and control, including the fact that we already have lots of examples (from the Texas Permanent School Fund to the Tennessee Valley Authority, from publicly owned electric utilities to public internet systems) in our midst. Great! There are lots of ways for the state to distribute the surplus to meet social needs and there’s no reason to limit ourselves to tax-and-spend policies. Why not let the state take direct control of economic activities? But then let’s also talk about how the surplus is produced and appropriated within such state enterprises. If we don’t, then we’re just talking about expanding state capitalism (capitalist enterprises that are owned and/or regulated by the state) and not about eliminating capitalist exploitation itself.

Both Mason and Alperovitz and Hanna seem to overlook that particular aspect—the class dimensions—of the critique of political economy.

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Do markets determine the unequal distribution of income under capitalism?* Well, yes and no.

The answer depends, of course, on the theory of income distribution one uses. Neoclassical economists focus exclusively on market exchanges and the idea that each factor of production (labor, capital, and land) receives a portion of total output in the form of income (wages, profits, or rent) according to its marginal contributions to production. In this sense, neoclassical economics represents a confirmation and celebration of capitalism’s “just deserts,” that is, everyone gets what they deserve.

Many other economists criticize this aspect of neoclassical theory and use an alternative approach. Stiglitz, for example, focuses on “rent-seeking” behavior—and therefore on the ways economic agents (such as those in the financial sector or CEOs) often rely on forms of power (political and/or economic) to secure more than their “just deserts.” Thus, for Stiglitz and others, the distribution of income is more unequal than it would be under perfect markets.

What about Marxian theory? It’s a bit different, in the sense that it relies on the assumptions similar to those of neoclassical theory while arriving at conclusions that are similar to those of the critics of the neoclassical theory of the distribution of income. The implication is that, even if and when markets are perfect (in the way neoclassical economists assume), the capitalist distribution of income violates the idea of “just deserts” (much in the way the critics argue).

Let me explain. Marx starts with the presumption that all markets operate much in the way the classical political economists then (and neoclassical economists today) presume. He then shows that even when all commodities exchange at their values and workers receive the value of their labor power (that is, no cheating), capitalists are able to appropriate a surplus-value (that is, there is exploitation). No special modifications of the presumption of perfect markets need to be made. As long as capitalists are able, after the exchange of money for the commodity labor power has taken place, to extract labor from labor power during the course of commodity production, there will be an extra value, a surplus-value, that capitalists are able to appropriate for doing nothing.

So, according to the Marxian theory of value, the distribution of income is determined partly by markets (workers receive the value of their labor power), partly outside of markets (capitalists appropriate surplus-value by extracting labor from labor power in production), and then partly once again in markets (the surplus-value is realized in the form of money if and when capitalists are able to sell the commodities that are produced).

But that’s only the first step. To make the analysis more concrete, Marx recognizes the fact that industrial capitalists don’t get to keep all the surplus-value they appropriate from their workers. They are forced to share their ill-gotten gains with others who help in various ways to secure the conditions of continued exploitation: other industrial capitalists (through competition within industries), financial capitalists (via an unequal exchange of money in the form of loans), the state (in the form of taxes), supervisors and managers (whose incomes represent distributions of the surplus-value), landlords (who are able to secure a portion of the surplus-value in the form of rent), and so on. The rest is kept as enterprise profits. Once again, then, the distribution of income is determined both inside and outside markets.

All of the preceding analysis is carried out under the assumption that all markets are perfect. Then, of course, at an even more concrete level, it is possible to introduce and explore the implications of all kinds of market imperfections, such as “political or economic power, rent-seeking, cronyism, imperfect information, monopolies,” which no doubt characterize contemporary capitalism.

The point is, the Marxian theory of the distribution of income identifies an unequal distribution of income that is endemic to capitalism—and thus a fundamental violation of the idea of “just deserts”—even if all markets operate according to the unrealistic assumptions of mainstream economists. And that intrinsically unequal distribution of income within capitalism (as determined both within and beyond markets) becomes even more unequal once we consider all the ways the mainstream assumptions about markets are violated on a daily basis within the kinds of capitalism we witness today.

Hence, my answer to the question, do markets determine the unequal distribution of income under capitalism? Well, yes (although not according to the neoclassical theory of marginal productivity) and no (since it is necessary to leave the sphere of exchange, the “very Eden of the innate rights of man,” and enter the realm of production in order to identify the existence of capitalist exploitation).

 

*This post is a response to Branko Milanovic’s summary of Joseph Stiglitz’s presentation at the recent American Economic Association/Allied Social Sciences meetings in Boston. According to Milanovic, Stiglitz divided theories of income distribution into two groups: market-based theories (such as neoclassical or marginal-productivity theory) and non-market theories (according to which incomes are “determined largely by exploitation, political or economic power, rent-seeking, cronyism, imperfect information, monopolies”).

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Special mention

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Recent legal decisions—such as the NLRB’s ruling that Northwestern University’s football players are employees of the school and are therefore entitled to a union election, and U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken’s ruling on the so-called O’Bannon case, which will enable football and men’s basketball players to receive more from schools than they are receiving now—have raised lots of important questions about how we look at and compensate the work performed by student-athletes in American colleges and universities.

One of the most interesting issues has to do with unpaid labor. Here’s the New York Times editorial board on the O’Bannon ruling:

The N.C.A.A. and its member institutions have no one to blame but themselves for any unintended negative consequences. They built a lucrative commercial enterprise that depended in large part on unpaid labor. Now they have to move forward without exploiting the very students they have always purported to protect.

That’s right: U.S. colleges and universities have been producing and selling athletic performances—especially, but not only, football and basketball games—that are produced by student-athletes who are not paid for their labor. The players do receive some compensation, such as tuition and room and board (and, on the O’Bannon ruling, will be permitted to receive money to defray some additional costs of attending school) but they are not being paid for the total value they produce for the schools they attend. Therefore, the players are performing unpaid labor.*

But why stop there? It may be easier to see unpaid labor when workers, such as student-athletes, receive absolutely no pay—and their employers are raking in huge sums of money from the work they perform. But why not then identify and do something about all the other forms of unpaid labor being performed in our economy? I’m thinking, for example, of autoworkers, restaurant employees, nurses, daycare workers, and so on, all of whom receive wages but wages that are much less than the total value they produce. They, too, are performing unpaid labor, which is then appropriated by their employers and serves as the source of the enterprises’ profits. 

No amount of tinkering with workers’ compensation—whether in the form of establishing a trust fund for student-athletes or raising minimum wages or increasing wages through market pressure or collective bargaining—will ultimately eliminate that unpaid labor. It may diminish it, by changing the ratio of unpaid to paid labor, but vast amounts of unpaid labor will continue to exist.

And that’s the problem that needs to be solved, both on American campuses and in the wider economy.

*In Marxian terms, the players are productive laborers and, by virtue of creating surplus-value, are being exploited by their capitalist employers, the boards of trustees of the colleges and universities where they work. Much of that extra value is retained by the athletic departments (which is then used to pay head coaches, their coaching staffs, and to build new, start-of-the-art athletic facilities), and another large portion is distributed to the NCAA. Hence, the opposition of the schools, coaches, and the NCAA to any measure that increases the bargaining power of the student-athlete-workers.

Capital

First, there was Marx for Beginners by Mexican cartoonist Rius [pdf]. Then, there were the two on-line lecture series by Stephen Resnick and David Harvey.

Now, there’s a new resource—a book and a set of Powerpoint slides—called PolyluxMarx: An Illustrated Workbook for Studying Marx’s Capital, by Valeria Bruschi, Antonella Muzzupappa, Sabine Nuss, Anne Stecklner, and Ingo Stützle, translated by Alexander Locascio, which can ordered from Monthly Review Press and is available on-line.

The Great Recession, triggered by the collapse of financial markets in 2008, struck with such ferocity that millions of people began to question the rationality of our capitalist economic system. And as scholars, journalists, and activists tried to comprehend what was happening, they were forced to look deeply into the nature of capitalism—inevitably leading them to the work of Karl Marx. Now, Marx is enjoying a worldwide rediscovery and resurrection, and his masterwork, Capital , has found its way back into college classrooms, labor unions, the Occupy movement, study groups, and into the hands of disillusioned young people.

Reading Capital can be a daunting endeavor and most readers need guidance when tackling this complex work. PolyluxMarx provides such guidance.

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Once again, the work of Hyman Minsky has been discovered—this time, by the BBC.

Minsky’s main idea is so simple that it could fit on a T-shirt, with just three words: “Stability is destabilising.”

Most macroeconomists work with what they call “equilibrium models” – the idea is that a modern market economy is fundamentally stable. That is not to say nothing ever changes but it grows in a steady way.

To generate an economic crisis or a sudden boom some sort of external shock has to occur – whether that be a rise in oil prices, a war or the invention of the internet.

Minsky disagreed. He thought that the system itself could generate shocks through its own internal dynamics. He believed that during periods of economic stability, banks, firms and other economic agents become complacent.

They assume that the good times will keep on going and begin to take ever greater risks in pursuit of profit. So the seeds of the next crisis are sown in the good time.

Much the same can be said about Marx’s work. In both theories, crises are endogenously produced within the capitalist system itself.

The approaches differ, of course: while Minsky focused on rising debt and complacency, Marx emphasized class exploitation and capitalist competition. But it doesn’t take much work to combine the insights of the two thinkers to identify what we might call the “Minsky-Marx moment”—the moment when, as a result of rising debt and competition over the surplus, the whole house of cards falls down.

But you won’t find either in modern macroeconomics. In fact, if you search inside one of the leading texts—Robert Barro’s Macroeconomics: A Modern Approach—you won’t find even a single mention of Minsky or Marx.

It’s no wonder modern mainstream macroeconomists and their students had so little to offer in terms of understanding how and why the latest crisis occurred or what to do once the house of cards did in fact come tumbling down.