Posts Tagged ‘fairness’

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” This, like the previous post, is for chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today.

A Tale of Two Capitalisms

Marxian economists recognize, just like mainstream economists, that capitalism has radically transformed the world in recent decades, continuing and in some cases accelerating long-term trends. For example, the world has seen spectacular growth in the amount and kinds of goods and services available to consumers. Everything, it seems, can be purchased either in retail shops, big-box stores, or online. And, every year, more of those goods and services are being produced and sold in markets.

That means the wealth of nations has expanded. Thus, technically, Gross Domestic Product per capita has risen since 1970 in countries as diverse as the United States (where it has more than doubled), Japan (more than tripled), China (almost ten times), and Botswana (where it has increased by a factor of more than 22).

International trade has also soared during the same period. Goods and services that are produced in once-remote corners of the world find their way to customers in other regions. Both physical commodities— such as smart phones, automobiles, and fruits and vegetables—and services—like banking, insurance, and communications—are being traded on an increasing basis between residents and non-residents of national economies. To put some numbers on it, merchandise trade grew from $318.2 billion dollars in 1970 to $19.48 trillion in 2018. And exports of services have become a larger and larger share of total exports—for the world as a whole (now 23.5 percent, up from 15 percent) and especially for certain countries (such as the United Kingdom, where services account for about 45 percent of all exports, and the Bahamas, where almost all exports are services).

The world’s cities are the hubs of all that commerce and transportation. It should come as no surprise that the urbanization of the global population has also expanded rapidly in recent decades, from about one third to now over half. In 2018, 1.7 billion people—23 per cent of the world’s population— lived in a city with at least 1 million inhabitants. And while only a small minority currently reside in cities with more than 10 million inhabitants, by 2030 a projected 752 million people will live in so-called megacities, many of them located in the Global South.

We’re all aware that, during recent decades, many new technologies have been invented—in producing goods and services as all well as in consuming them. Think of robotics, artificial intelligence, and digital media. And, with them, new industries and giant firms have emerged and taken off. Consider the so-called Big Four technology companies: Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook. They were only founded in the last few decades but, as they’ve continued to grow, they’ve become intertwined with the lives of millions of companies and billions of people around the world.

The owners of those tech companies are, to no one’s amazement, all billionaires. When the first Forbes World Billionaires List was published in 1987, it included only 140 billionaires. Today, they number 2825 and their combined wealth is about $9.4 trillion. That works out to be about $3,300,000,000 per billionaire. Their wealth certainly represents one of the great success stories of capitalism in recent decades.

Finally, capitalism has grown in more countries and expanded into more parts of more countries’ economies over the course of the past 40 years. Both large countries and small (from Russia, India, and China to El Salvador, Algeria, and Vietnam) are more capitalist than ever before. As we look around the world, we can see that the economies of rural areas have been increasingly transformed by and connected to capitalist ways of producing and exchanging goods and services. Global value chains have incorporated and fundamentally altered the lives of millions and millions of workers around the world. Meanwhile, areas of the economy that had been formerly outside of capitalism—for example, goods and services provided by households and government—can now be bought and sold on markets and are the source of profits for a growing number of companies.

But, unlike mainstream economists, Marxists recognize that capitalism’s extraordinary successes in recent decades have also come with tremendous economic and social costs.

All that new wealth of nations? Well, it’s been produced by workers that receive in wages and salaries only a portion of the total value they’ve created. The rest, the surplus, has gone to those at the top of the economic pyramid. So, the distribution of income has become increasingly unequal over time—both within countries and for the world economy as a whole.

According to the the latest World Inequality Report, income inequality has increased in nearly all countries, especially in the United States, China, India, and Russia. In other countries (for example, in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and Brazil), income inequality has remained relatively stable but at extremely high levels.

At a global level, inequality has also worsened. Thus, for example, the top 1 percent richest individuals in the world captured more than twice as much of the growth in income as the bottom 50 percent since 1980. Basically, the share of income going to the bottom half has mostly stagnated (at around 9 percent), while the share captured by the top 1 percent has risen dramatically (from around 16 percent to more than 20 percent).

And it’s no accident. Inequality has increased because the surplus labor performed by workers, in both rich and poor countries, has not been kept by them but has gone to a small group at the top of the national and world economies.

So, we really are talking about a tale of two capitalisms: one that is celebrated by mainstream economists (but only benefits those in the top 1 percent) and another that is recognized by Marxian economists (who emphasize the idea that the growing wealth of nations and increasing inequality are characteristics of the same economic system).

But that’s not the end of the story. All that capitalist growth has been anything but steady. The two most severe economic downturns since the Great Depression of the 1930s have happened in the new millennium: the Second Great Depression (after the crash of 2007-08) and the Pandemic Depression (with the outbreak and spread of the novel coronavirus). In both cases, hundreds of millions of workers around the world were laid off or had their pay cut. Many of them were already struggling to get by, with stagnant wages and precarious jobs, even before economic conditions took a turn for the worse.

And then those same workers had to look up and see one part of the economy recovering—for example, the profits of their employers and shares in the stock market that fueled the wealth of the billionaires—while the one in which they earned their livelihoods barely budged.

Meanwhile, those stunning global cities and urban centers, the likes of which the world has never seen, also include vast slums and informal settlements—parking lots for the working poor. According to the United Nations, over 1 billion people now live in dense neighborhoods with unreliable and often shared access to basic services like water, sanitation and electricity. Many don’t have bank accounts, basic employment contracts, or insurance. Their incomes and workplaces are not on any government agency’s radar.

They’re not so much left behind but, just like their counterparts in the poor neighborhoods of rich countries, incorporated into capitalism on a profoundly unequal basis. They’re forced to compete with one another for substandard housing and low-paying jobs while suffering from much higher rates of crime and environmental pollution than those who live in the wealthy urban neighborhoods. In countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, a disproportionate number are ethnic and racial minorities and recent immigrants.

The working poor in both urban and rural areas are also the ones most affected by the climate crisis. A product of capitalism’s growth, not only in recent decades, but since its inception, global warming has created a world that is crossing temperature barriers which, within a decade, threaten ecosystem collapse, ocean acidification, mass desertification, and coastal areas being flooded into inhabitability.

Meanwhile, the democratic principles and institutions that people have often relied on to make their voices heard are being challenged by political elites and movements that are fueled by and taking advantage of the resentments created by decades of capitalist growth. The irony, of course, is many of these political parties were elected through democratic means and call for more, not less, unbridled capitalism as the way forward.

Clearly, the other side of the coin of capitalism’s tremendous successes have been spectacular failures.

So, it should come as no surprise that there’s more interest these days in both criticisms of and alternatives to capitalism. And Marxian economics is one of the key sources for both: for ways of analyzing capitalism that point to these and other failures not as accidents, but as intrinsic to the way capitalism operates as a system; and for ideas about how to imagine and create other institutions, fundamentally different ways of organizing economic and social life.

Young people, especially, have become interested in the tradition of Marxian economics. They’re trying to pay for their schooling, find decent jobs, and start rewarding careers but they’re increasingly dissatisfied with the effects of the economic system they’re inheriting. Mainstream economics seems to offer less and less to them, especially since it has mostly celebrated and offered policies to strengthen that same economic system. Or, within more liberal parts of mainstream economics, offer only minor changes to keep the system going.

Marxian economics offers a real alternative—in terms of criticizing capitalism and the possibility of creating an economic system that actually delivers longstanding promises of fairness and justice.

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Special mention

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Richard Reeves is right about one thing: time is crucial to capitalism’s legitimacy. The premise and promise of capitalism are that the future will be better than the present. And “if capitalism loses its lease on the future, it is in trouble.”

The fact is, things are not getting better for the vast majority of American workers. They’re falling behind. For example, as is clear in the chart above, the labor share in the U.S. nonfarm business sector has fallen more than 13 percent since early 2001—and there’s no indication that trend will be reversed anytime in the foreseeable future.

Time is clearly running out on capitalism.

It’s not as though Americans are unaware of this and other related trends, such as the looming climate crisis.*

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Back in 2014, most Americans (62 percent) said the economic system in the United States unfairly favored powerful interests; only about a third (34 percent) said it is generally fair to most Americans. According to the Pew Research Center, those percentages are almost the same today.**

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Moreover, the public continues to say that “business corporations make too much profit.” Today, 56 percent of the public says corporations make too much profit; only 39 percent say “most corporation make a fair and reasonable amount of profit.” These views have held largely steady since 1994.

Americans hold similar views about the fairness of the Trump tax cuts (49 percent disapprove versus 36 percent who expressed approval) and the federal tax system (around 60 percent feel that some corporations and some wealthy people don’t pay their fair share).

Clearly, capitalism has lost a great deal of whatever legitimacy it once enjoyed in the minds of Americans.

Time may be running out for capitalism but time is still on our side. Because the same future orientation—the fact that “once the capitalism engine revved up, the future entered our collective imagination”—also includes the possibility that things can in fact be better in the future, even if making things better requires fundamental changes in the way the economy is organized.***

It is that relationship to time created by capitalism, according to which “each generation will rise on the shoulders of the one before,” that both leads to resentment about the unfulfilled promises of the existing economy and sparks the imagination of a radically different way of organizing economic and social life in the future.

 

*Reeves makes what can only be considered a risible argument on this score: “Blaming capitalism for climate change is like blaming distilleries for drunk driving.” The fact is, global warming is the result of the Capitalocene, in which the activities of corporations have made enormous profits both producing and using fossil fuels—and they haven’t been made to pay for the environmental costs, which they’ve managed to shift to the rest of society.

**The only notable change in the last five years is the fact that Republicans’ and Democrats’ attitudes about the fairness of the economic system have moved in opposite directions: in 2014, there was a 20 percentage-point gap between the shares of Republicans (51 percent) and Democrats (71 percent) who said the economy unfairly favors powerful interests; that gap is now 41 points (40 percent of Republicans versus 81 percent of Democrats). While about eight-in-ten Democrats and Democratic leaners say the economic system is unfair, a majority of Republicans and Republican leaners (56 percent) now say the economic system is generally fair to most Americans.

***The problem of time has long eluded mainstream, especially neoclassical, economists. For example, the only way they can envision a general equilibrium of markets is to suspend time, forbidding all trades unless and until there’s a price vector (announced by the mythical “auctioneer”) that brings all (actually, n-1) markets into equilibrium. Once time is introduced and trades take place without supply-demand equilibrium, all bets are off. Then, it’s likely the economy will not be in equilibrium, and may even move further away from equilibrium over time.

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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 it 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. 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 lazy, populism, the economics of control, utopian socialism, inequality, international trade, healthcare (here and here), the disaster in Puerto Rico, epistemology, value theory, macroeconomics, economic development, markets, technology, 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.

CEO

While Amazon let it slip last week that its Prime program—the annual membership that offers discount pricing and free 2-day shipping—now tops 100 million members, there’s another number people might be curious about: the company’s average annual wage, which Amazon revealed in compliance with a new regulation that asks companies to show a comparison between an average worker’s wage and the salary of their CEO.

Amazon has reported an average compensation for its varied, mostly warehouse (and now, with Whole Foods, grocery store), workers at $28,446 a year. The federal government defines its poverty guideline for a family of four to be $25,100. So, Amazon’s average wage falls easily within 150 percent of the poverty line—and stands at about one-half of the median household income in the United States.

No wonder, then, that Amazon is owned and run by literally the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos. While he technically “made” only $1.7 million last year, he’s worth $127 billion.* So it means on paper, Bezos makes $59 for every dollar an average employee earns, which is actually a smaller ratio than the average of 271 to 1 for the largest 350 U.S. corporations (pdf).

While Amazon may not have been thrilled by being forced to reveal this not-so-flattering wage comparison, they do have one thing going for them: the only private employer bigger than the e-commerce giant is their retail competitor Walmart, whose workers average only $19,177 per year, putting them far under the federal poverty guidelines. Moreover, the ratio to average-worker pay of Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, who took in $22.8 million last year, was an astounding 1,188 to 1.

And the extraordinary numbers continue, across the economy. Royal Caribbean Cruises: 728-1. Regeneron Pharmaceuticals: 215-1. Netflix: 133-1. Live Nation Entertainment: 2,893-1. Honeywell International: 333-1. Fidelity National Information Services: 654-1. UnitedHealth Group: 298-1. And on and on.

Each such ratio indicates the obscene level of inequality in the United States, based on the amount of surplus pumped out of workers and distributed to those who run American corporations on behalf of their boards of directors.

While the figures of CEO-to-average-worker-pay are being reported in the business press, they have not been widely discussed in the media or by the nation’s politicians. It should come as no surprise, then, that Americans underestimate—by a wide margin—the degree of inequality in the United States.

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In a 2014 study, Sorapop Kiatpongsan and Michael Norton asked about 55,000 people around the globe, including 1,581 participants in the United States, how much money they thought corporate CEOs made compared with unskilled factory workers.** Then they asked how much more pay they thought CEOs should make. American respondents guessed that executives out-earned factory workers roughly 30-to-1—just about what that ratio was in the 1960s and exponentially lower than the actual estimate at the time of 354-to-1. They believed the ideal ratio should be about 7-to-1.

As it turns out, Americans didn’t answer the survey much differently from participants in other countries. Australians believed that roughly 8-to-1 would be a good ratio; the French settled on about 7-to-1; and the Germans settled on around 6-to-1. In every country, the CEO pay-gap ratio was far greater than people assumed. And though they didn’t concur on precisely what would be fair, both conservatives and liberals around the world also concurred that the pay gap should be smaller. People also agreed across income and education levels, as well as across age groups.

Why should this matter?

Because representations of the economy that minimize the existence of inequality or the problems associated with inequality are bound to reinforce the systematic misperceptions found by Norton and others.

That’s exactly what much mainstream economics accomplishes. It deflects attention from the existence of inequality (e.g., by focusing on growth, output, and the price level versus distribution) and from the economic and social problems created by inequality (by attributing the growing gap between the haves and have-nots to forces like globalization and technological change that are beyond our control or invoking more education as the only solution).

Mainstream economics therefore forms part of what others (such as Vladimir Gimpelson and Daniel Treisman) refer to as “ideology,” “which may predispose people to ‘see’ the level of inequality that their beliefs and values convince them must exist.” And the strength of mainstream economics in the United States—in colleges and universities as well as in the media, think tanks, and in government—and around the world is one of the main reasons Americans, like people in other countries, tend not to see the existing degree of inequality.

On the other hand, the ideology of mainstream economics is never complete. That’s why Americans and citizens around the globe do see that the degree of inequality created by existing economic arrangements is fundamentally unfair.

It’s that sense of unfairness, which is only partially masked by mainstream economics, that can serve as the basis for a radical rethinking and reimagining of contemporary economic and social institutions.

 

*Bezos [ht: sm] received a hostile reception from workers when he arrived in Berlin to pick up an innovation award last Tuesday. As Frank Bsirske, the head of the Verdi trade union, explained: “We have a boss who wants to impose American working conditions on the world and take us back to the 19th century.” Meanwhile, back in the United States, Amazon reported that its profits more than doubled to $1.6 billion in the first quarter of 2018, sending shares of its stock soaring to an all-time high.

**This is the second high-profile paper in which Norton discovered that Americans have a notion of economic fairness that is strikingly more equal than the current reality, and more equal even than their own underestimate of the degree of inequality.

Ex5

For over a century, the most effective way to stop attempts to reduce healthcare disparities in the United States has been to invoke the fear of “socialized medicine.” As a result, Americans have ended up with socialized inequality in their healthcare system.

And they know it.

According to a new study by Joachim O. Hero, Alan M. Zaslavsky, and Robert J. Blendon published in Health Affairs (unfortunately behind a paywall), 67 percent of respondents in the health module of the General Social Survey believed that “many” people in the United States do not have access to the health care they need. This is over 10 percentage points higher than the level in any other country, and over twice the median country rate of 31 percent. And even though only 54 percent of respondents viewed income-based differences in the quality of health care that people have access to as unfair (much lower than the median country rate of 68 percent), the majority of respondents—54 percent of those who viewed income-related disparities as fair and 73 percent of the respondents who viewed such disparities as unfair expressed their support for major health system reform.

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And reform is, of course, necessary.

The United States has the third-highest disparity—behind only Chile and Portugal—at 25.9 percentage points.* Among US respondents, 38.2 percent in the bottom income tertile reported fair or poor health, compared to 21.4 percent in the middle tertile, and 12.3 percent in the top tertile.

While many countries exhibited consistent disparities in health care across measures of access and care satisfaction, most had mixed or negligible disparities in all measures. The United States stands out by exhibiting large disparities in most measures, making it unique among high-income countries. In fact, the United States had the second-largest disparity in people forgoing needed medical treatment because they could not pay for it, at 16.5 percentage points (behind only the Philippines), and the third-highest disparity in people believing they would get the best treatment available in their country if they were seriously ill, at 15.5 percentage points (behind only Chile and Bulgaria).

We often forget that the Affordable Care Act, in addition to extending health insurance, bolstered efforts to address socialized inequality in a number of other ways, including improved standards for data collection, support for disparities research, provisions to support diversity in the health care workforce, and the funding of demonstration programs aimed at reducing health disparities.

According to the authors of the study,

Eliminating these efforts without providing clear alternatives would risk taking a step backward in an area where the United States is in sore need of improvement, and in a political environment where solutions with broad support are increasingly hard to find.

 

*Disparity is defined by the authors as the percentage-point difference between respondents in the top and bottom income tertiles.

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I find myself thinking more these days about the fairness of Social Security and other government retirement benefits.

One reason, of course, is because I’m getting close to retirement age—and, as I discover each time I raise the issue with students, young people don’t think about it much.* Another reason is because Social Security (in addition to Medicare, Disability, and other programs) is the way the United States creates a collective bond between current and former workers, by using a portion of the surplus produced by current workers to provide a safety net for workers who have retired.

That represents a kind of social fairness—that people who have spent a large portion of their lives working (most people need 40 credits, based on years of work and earnings, to qualify for full Social Security benefits) are eligible for government retirement benefits provided by current workers. Another aspect of that fairness is the system should and does redistribute from those with high lifetime incomes to those with lower lifetime incomes. While that makes the actual “rates of return” unequal across groups, it’s designed to provide a floor for the poorest workers in society.

Many people consider the U.S. Social Security system fair on those two grounds. That’s true even though some people, by random draw, may live longer than others. However, as Alan J. Auerbach et al. (pdf [ht: lw]) report, that fairness may be put into question if there are identifiable groups that vary in life expectancy, “as this introduces a non-random aspect to the inequality.”

Here’s the problem: retirement benefits in the United States are increasingly unequally distributed on a non-random basis. As I’ve written about many different times (e.g., here, here, and here), there’s a gap in life expectancies between those at the bottom and top of the distribution of income. And the gap has been growing over time.

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That result is confirmed by Alan J. Auerbach et al.: for the male birth cohort of 1930, life expectancy at age 50 rises from 26.6 to 31.7—a difference of 5.1 years. For the 1960 cohort, the lowest quintile has a slightly lower life expectancy than the 1930 cohort but then rises a level of 12.7 years higher for the top quintile, “indicating a very large increase in the dispersion.”

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Not surprisingly (since benefits rise with earnings), Social Security benefits also rise with income quintiles. Thus, for example, for men in the 1930 cohort, workers in the lowest quintile can expect to receive, on average, $126 thousand in benefits over the rest of their lives (discounted to age 50), while workers in the top quintile can expect to receive $229 thousand, or 82 percent more than the lowest income workers.

What is particularly troubling is how the results change when we move to the 1960 cohort. The additional 6-8 years of life expectancy for the top three quintiles lead to large increases in expected Social Security benefits, with benefits for the top quintile reaching $295 thousand. The difference between the highest and lowest quintiles is then expected to be $173 thousand, or 142 percent of the lowest income workers’ benefit.

According to the authors of the study,

These results suggest that Social Security is becoming significantly less progressive over time due to the widening gap in life expectancy.

Not only does the growing gap in life expectancies undermine the basic fairness of the Social Security system. It calls into question capitalism itself.

 

*For understandable reasons. I certainly didn’t think about retirement at that age. (I barely thought about getting a job. I just presumed I would—and would be able to—at some point.) However, when students are induced to do think about retirement, as I’ve written before, most take it for granted that Social Security is doomed. While they expect to pay into Social Security, they don’t expect to receive any Social Security benefits when they retire. Then, of course, I explain to them that making only one change—raising the taxable earnings base—would eliminate the projected deficit and keep Social Security solvent forever.

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Is it any surprise, as Christina Starman, Mark Sheskin, and Paul Bloom argue, that fairness is not the same thing as equality?

There is immense concern about economic inequality, both among the scholarly community and in the general public, and many insist that equality is an important social goal. However, when people are asked about the ideal distribution of wealth in their country, they actually prefer unequal societies. We suggest that these two phenomena can be reconciled by noticing that, despite appearances to the contrary, there is no evidence that people are bothered by economic inequality itself. Rather, they are bothered by something that is often confounded with inequality: economic unfairness.

Still, I think, many people today are bothered by both—economic unfairness and grotesque levels of economic inequality.

Let me explain. As I have written before, I’m not particularly convinced of the idea being promoted by Starman et al. and by other evolutionary psychologists that fairness is part of humans’ biological inheritance. Instead, I’m more inclined to look in the direction of history and society.

Fairness is, I think, a concept that is part of bourgeois society, which is created and disseminated in a wide variety of discourses and sites, including economics. (To be clear, there may be other notions of fairness in human history, outside and beyond bourgeois society. My point is only that capitalism has its own particular notions of fairness, and they’re the ones that motivate our current “fairness instinct.”)

Fairness is an important part of the self-justification of bourgeois society. For example, market outcomes are considered fair because sovereign individuals are free to engage in voluntary transactions, which result in equal exchanges. That’s an idea that is created and reproduced throughout contemporary society, especially in mainstream economics.

So, yes, individuals within contemporary capitalism are constituted, at least in part, by certain notions of fairness, which they express in a wide variety of contexts, from participating in the ultimatum game to making a distinction between “takers” and “makers.”

By the same token, it’s not particularly shocking that those same individuals agree there should be some degree of inequality in economic outcomes. That’s also part of capitalism’s self-justification, that “fair” processes will produce unequal results. So, people seem to agree, not everyone can or should receive the same income or have the same wealth. We have different abilities, needs, desires, and circumstances, so the discourse goes, resulting in—perhaps even requiring—different amounts of income and wealth.

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But then, of course, income inequalities have become so obscene—so unjustified by any conceivable differences in abilities, needs, desires, and circumstances—that, in the name of fairness, people demand more equality.

That’s how I think we need to reconcile the ideas of fairness and equality—not, as Starman et al. would have it, that people are bothered by fairness but not by inequality, but instead that bourgeois notions of fairness are so challenged and disrupted by existing levels of inequality people demand perhaps not perfect but certainly much more equality than exists today.

The real question is not whether there’s a “universal moral concern with fairness.” Instead, it’s whether the existing system can deliver on its promise to create fair (and, with them, more equal) outcomes—or, alternatively, whether it’s necessary to imagine and create a different set of economic and social institutions, which will actually fulfill that promise of fairness and at the same time deliver much more equality than exists in the United States today.

Leftists versus Liberals

Special mention

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According to the norms of both neoclassical economic theory and capitalism itself, workers’ wages should increase at roughly the same rate as their productivity.* Clearly, in recent years they have not.

The chart above, which was produced by B. Ravikumar and Lin Shao for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, shows that labor compensation has grown slowly during the recovery of the U.S. economy from the 2007-09 recession. In fact, real labor compensation per hour in the nonfarm business sector was 0.5 percent lower 20 quarters after the start of the recovery, while labor productivity had increased by 6 percent.

Clearly, the gap between worker compensation and productivity has grown during the current recovery.

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But the authors go even further, showing that the gap in the United States between compensation to workers and their productivity has been growing for decades.

labor productivity has been growing at a higher rate than labor compensation for more than 40 years. As Figure 3 shows, labor productivity in 2016:Q1 is 3.8 times as high as that in 1950:Q1; labor compensation, on the other hand, is only 2.7 times as high. In other words, the gap between labor productivity and compensation has been widening for the past four decades. The slower growth in labor compensation relative to labor productivity during the recovery from the two most recent recessions is part of this long-term trend. (reference omitted)

The data in Figure 3 show that the productivity-compensation gap—defined as labor productivity divided by labor compensation—has been increasing on average by approximately 0.9 percent per year since 1970:Q1. Based on this long-term trend, the gap would have been 51 percent higher in 2016:Q1 compared with 1970:Q1; in the data, the gap is actually 47 percent higher.

The fact is, labor compensation has failed to keep up with labor productivity after the Great Recession. But, as it turns out, there’s nothing unique about this period. The gap has been growing for more than four decades in the United States.**

Clearly, the recent and long-term trends of productivity and labor compensation challenge the norms of neoclassical economics and of capitalism itself. But we are also seeing the growth of another gap—between the promises of both neoclassical theory and capitalism and the reality workers have faced for decades now.

 

*Neoclassical economics—in particular, the marginal productivity theory of distribution—is based on the idea that the factors of production (land, labor, capital, and so on) receive in the form of income what they contribute to production. So, for example, as labor productivity increases, real wages should also rise. Similarly, capitalism is based on the idea of “just deserts.” That idea—that everyone gets what they deserve—is essential to the very idea of fairness or justice in the way the economy is currently organized.

**The authors’ analysis is based on the gap between labor compensation and productivity. If we look at real wages (as in the chart below) instead of compensation (which includes benefits, and therefore the portion of the surplus employers distribute to pension plans, healthcare insurers, and others), the gap is even larger.

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According to my calculations from Fed data, since 1979, productivity has grown by 60 percent while real wages have increased by less than 5 percent.