Posts Tagged ‘labor’

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I’ve made the case before that student-athletes are performing unpaid labor. That is, U.S. colleges and universities produce and sell athletic performances—especially, but not only, football and basketball games—that are produced by student-athletes who are not paid anything for their labor.

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The question then is, who’s benefiting from that unpaid labor? It’s certainly not the professors who teach at those schools (nor, for that matter, the staff who keep the academic programs and infrastructure running). Faculty members are not making anywhere near what the athletic coaches do, and their salary increases have lagged far behind the amount of money being paid to coaches in recent years.

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And much more money is being spent on athletic programs—although clearly not in the form of pay to the players—than on academic programs.

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So, where are all those revenues from the athletic program going? As it turns out, the single biggest outlay—more than a third—is for coaches’ salaries.

Apparently, according to a recent article on the Huffington Post [ht: ja], that’s the reason so many coaches are opposed to paying college athletes for their labor.

“Schools quite often move around or spend money to basically get rid of excess revenue — what would be called profit in a profit-making corporation,” said Michael Leeds, a professor of economics at Temple University. “‘[That’s why] you have several coaches [in the NCAA] getting paid NFL money, despite working for an enterprise that really does not match what the New England Patriots and the New York Giants take in.”

That would explain why some universities end up with state-of-the-art sports facilities. Or why Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski makes nearly $10 million per year, much more than the typical NBA coach. Or why in so many states, the best-paid public employee is a basketball or football coach. . .

“The coaches very likely are very upset over [the prospect of] players being paid because, for one thing, that means a pay cut for them,” Leeds said.

fredgraph chart

The discussion of capital and labor shares puts the issue of class at the top of the agenda. No wonder, then, that mainstream economists are expending so much effort these days attempting to define away the problem.

Let me explain.

If we look at changes in capital and labor shares (measured in terms of corporate profits before tax and compensation of employees as shares of gross domestic product, as in the chart on the left), we can clearly see that, in recent decades, the profit share has been rising and the labor share has been falling. In other words, labor has been losing out to capital—and we need to focus on solving that class problem.

But, of course, the share of income accruing to capital doesn’t just show up in corporate profits; some of that capital share is also distributed to a small portion of income-earners in the corporate (both financial and nonfinancial) sector. The share of income of the top one percent (as in the chart on the right) is a good approximation. If we therefore added the top-one-percent to corporate profits, and at the same time subtracted it from the compensation of employees, the divergence between the capital and labor shares would be even greater—and the class problem would be even more acute.

MIT’s Matthew Rognlie understands this perfectly. He notes that David Ricardo pronounced the issue of how aggregate income is split between labor and capital the “principal problem of Political Economy” and that the recent explosion of research on inequality has both called into question the postwar presumption of constant capital and labor shares and emphasized the increasing share of income accruing to the richest individuals. In other words, class has once again reared its ugly head.

Instead of trying to solve this class problem, Rognlie attempts to define away the problem—first, by focusing on net income shares and, then, by including housing in capital. He concludes that, once those adjustments are made,

concern about inequality should be shifted away from the split between capital and labor, and toward other aspects of distribution, such as the within-labor distribution of income.

The problem with focusing on net income shares—that is, in the case of capital, gross profits minus depreciation—is that it confuses flows of value (corporate profits before taxes, plus incomes to the top one percent, in the way I suggested above) with expenditures (e.g., by corporations to replace the value of plant, building, and machinery that has depreciated in value during the course of production).

The problem with including housing in the capital stock is that it doesn’t form part of the capital from which capitalists derive a flow of new value added or created. Housing industry profits are already accounted for in gross corporate profits. The fact that individuals may own housing doesn’t allow them to capture any of that new value; it just allows them to enjoy the benefits of have a home and to pay the costs (to banks and other financial institutions) of financing their homeownership.

While I agree with Rognlie that the “story of the postwar net capital share is not a simple one,” the fall and then recovery of the capital share (in the form of both corporate profits and one-percent incomes), which is mirrored by the rise and then fall of the wage share, can’t simply be defined away.

In other words, just as it was in the early-nineteenth century, class remains the “principal problem of Political Economy” in our own times.

Labor’s cartoonist

Posted: 4 March 2015 in Uncategorized
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Gary Huck, whose cartoons have often graced this blog, is the last full-time cartoonist employed by a major labor union (the UE—the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America).

Huck is the subject—alongside the freelance labor cartoonist Mike Konopacki, who formed a syndication partnership with Huck in the early 1980s to sell cartoons to union and alternative newspapers—of “Seeing Red,” an exhibit of their work running through Friday at the Uri-Eichen Gallery in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago.

The UE, which was founded in the 1930s by workers from GE and Westinghouse and RCA, once had a membership of more than 600,000 workers. And though the UE historically has been on the left politically, not everything that Huck draws wins lock-step approval these days. A couple of months ago, for instance, in the wake of the Ferguson, Mo., riots, Huck tweaked Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting of a policeman sitting at the counter of a soda fountain beside a young boy. He made the white child a black child, with hands raised in surrender. That went into the UE News, and Hart said it received some backlash from members. Still, Huck has become a cornerstone of the union.

Part of its culture.

Par for its course.

The cartoons of both Huck and Konopacki can been seen here.

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Like the capital controversy of the 1960s, the current controversy over human capital pits neoclassical economics against its critics.

The capital controversy (also known as the Cambridge controversy, because it was staged between neoclassical economists at MIT, and thus of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and non-neoclassical economists at Cambridge University, and thus of Cambridge, England), which actually took place between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s, was narrowly about the internal consistency of neoclassical economics and more generally about the role of capital in economic theory. The basic idea is that, in a world of heterogeneous capital goods (e.g., a shovel and an automobile assembly-line), you need to know the price of capital (the interest rate or rate of return on capital) in order to determine the quantity of capital (i.e., in order to add up all those different kinds of physical capital). But, in neoclassical economics, you need to use the quantity of capital in order to determine the price of capital (via supply and demand in the “capital market”), which creates a fundamental problem for the neoclassical theory of capital.

Hence, Joan Robinson’s famous question, “What is capital?” To which neoclassical economists responded with gobbledy-gook. And so Robinson repeated her question, the neoclassicals withgobbledy-gook, and the controversy continued without resolution. Neoclassical economists, like Robert Solow, resorted to an aggregate production function (where the problem of heterogenous goods is simply defined away), while Robinson and the other anti-neoclassical economists on the other side of the pond entered into increasingly arcane areas of dispute, such as reswitching and capital-reversing.*

As I have long explained to students, the theory of capital is the most controversial topic in the history of economic thought because the theory of capital is the theory of profits—and therefore an answer to the question, do the capitalists deserve the profits they get?

The original capital controversy was never resolved. But now there’s a new capital controversy, a debate about human capital. It was launched by Branko Milanovic, based on Thomas Piketty’s refusal to include human capital in the other forms of capital he measures in his inquiry about the history and future prospects of wealth inequality.** Basically, Milanovic argues that labor is not a form of capital because labor involves a “doing” (work has to be performed in order for skills to be used and wages to be paid) while other forms of capital are characterized not by work but by nonwork, that is, ownership (financial capital generates a return based on owning some of financial claim, and no work is involved in making such a claim).

why is “human capital” such a disastrous turn of phrase? There are two reasons. First, it obfuscates the crucial difference between labor and capital by terminologically conflating the two. Labor now seems to be just a subspecies of capital. Second and more important, it leads to a perception — and sometimes to the argument used by insufficiently careful economists — that all individuals, whether owners of real capital or not, are basically capitalists. Even if you have human capital and I have financial capital, we are fundamentally the same. Entirely lost is the key distinction that for you to get an income from your human capital, you have to work. For me to get an income from my financial capital, I do not.

I’m with Milanovic on this. There is a fundamental difference between doing and owning, between doing labor and owning capital. But I also think the human capital controversy has even larger implications.

First, a bit of history: the idea of human capital was invented in the early 1960s by neoclassical economist Theodore Schultz [pdf] as part of a more general attack on Marxian-inspired notions of capital (capital that is connected to profits and therefore exploitation), an extension of Adam Smith’s theory of the causes of the wealth of nations (which now, Schultz argued, should include the accumulation of all prior investments in education, on-the-job training, health, migration, and other factors that increase individual productivity), and an attempt to depict all economic agents, including laborers, as capitalists (who “invest” in and “manage a portfolio” of skills and abilities). Human capital can thus be seen as, simultaneously, a blunting of the critical dimension of capital (broadening it to matters other than profits and thus a particular set of claims on the surplus) and a step in the creation of the neoliberal subject (who seeks a “return” on its “investments” in itself).

Second, the problems associated with the notion of human capital, which Piketty’s correctly does not include in his definition of wealth (since, for Piketty, “capital is defined as the sum total of nonhuman assets that can be owned and exchanged on some market”), also serve to undermine at least part of Piketty’s project. One of the elements missing from Piketty’s approach to capital as wealth is any kind of “doing.” It’s all about owning (of “real property” as well as of “financial and professional capital”), without any discussion of the labor that has to be performed in order to generate some kind of extra value and thus a return on capital.

And so, as it alway does in economics, it comes down to a theory of value. In neoclassical theory, all factors of production get, in the form of income, an amount equal to their marginal contributions to production. Everyone contributes and everyone, within free markets, gets their “just deserts.” In Piketty’s world, the owners of capital manage to capture a larger and larger portion of the national income if the rate of economic growth is less than the rate of return on capital (which exacerbates the already-unequal distribution of income, based largely on CEO salaries). In a Marxian world, capital is a social relationship that both generates a surplus (because “industrial capital” exploits “productive labor”) and represents a distributed claim on one or another portion of the surplus (in the form of “financial capital,” the ownership of land, and so on), based on the idea that the “doing” of labor occurs simultaneously—as both cause and effect—with the “owning” of capital. Three different theories of value and thus three very different theories of capital.

But it doesn’t stop there. In recent years, we have seen a dreary expansion of the idea of capital beyond even physical/financial capital and human capital. It now includes—in the hands of business professors, economists, and other social scientists—intellectual, organizational, social, and other forms of capital. Somehow, if they call it capital, they think it deserves to be taken more seriously.

As I see it, all these new forms of capital, like human capital, are ways of expanding Smith’s wealth of nations; they all seen as contributing to the production of more “stuff”—more use-values, the “immense accumulation of commodities.” But the expanding universe of capital also serves to hide the extent to which all that stuff, which is in reality socially produced, is then privately appropriated—leading to a growing gap between a tiny minority at the top and everyone else. In other words, it’s a pattern of private capitalist appropriation that creates a more and more unequal distribution of income and wealth.

The capital controversy will remain with us, then, as long as we refuse to solve the problem of capital.

 

*Avi J. Cohen and G. C. Harcourt [pdf] provide a useful overview of the capital controversy.

**Nick Rowe and Tim Worstall have since criticized Milanovic and his call to junk the notion of human capital, and he in turn has responded to their criticisms.

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As Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek finance minister, sticks his head into the mouth of the neoliberal euro lion, we’re learning all kinds of things about him, from his preferred mode of dress (no tie, untucked shirt. . .) and transportation (“muscular Yamaha motorcycle”) to his academic training (as a mathematician) and curriculum vitae (including teaching stints at various British universities, the University of Sydney, the University of Athens, and most recently the LBJ Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin).

We’re also now learning about how Varoufakis became an “erratic Marxist.”

The entire piece is worth a read but I was intrigued by a few key ideas: First, Varoufakis mentions the importance of Marx’s dialectical perspective, “where everything is pregnant with its opposite, and the eager eye with which Marx discerned the potential for change in what seemed to be the most unchanging of social structures.” That idea, which runs directly counter to mainstream economists’ focus on stasis, equilibrium, and the transhistorical nature of the “economic problem” of scarcity, is crucial for carrying out a critique of political economy and keeping alive the idea that another economic and social system is possible.

The second idea is the contradiction inherent in the capitalist commodification of labor. Unlike other commodities, such as oranges, labor is both treated as a homogeneous quantity (as labor power, the ability to work) that is available for sale (after a long historical process, and with a great deal of ongoing social effort) and comes at a price (the value of labor power) and, at the same time, resists commodification (because, as the value-creating activity of human beings, it can never be quantified in advance).

If workers and employers ever succeed in commodifying labour fully, capitalism will perish. This is an insight without which capitalism’s tendency to generate crises can never be fully grasped and, also, an insight that no one has access to without some exposure to Marx’s thought.

If capital ever succeeds in quantifying, and subsequently fully commodifying, labour, as it is constantly trying to, it will also squeeze that indeterminate, recalcitrant human freedom from within labour that allows for the generation of value. Marx’s brilliant insight into the essence of capitalist crises was precisely this: the greater capitalism’s success in turning labour into a commodity the less the value of each unit of output it generates, the lower the profit rate and, ultimately, the nearer the next recession of the economy as a system. The portrayal of human freedom as an economic category is unique in Marx, making possible a distinctively dramatic and analytically astute interpretation of capitalism’s propensity to snatch recession, even depression, from the jaws of growth.

When Marx was writing that labour is the living, form-giving fire; the transitoriness of things; their temporality; he was making the greatest contribution any economist has ever made to our understanding of the acute contradiction buried inside capitalism’s DNA. When he portrayed capital as a “… force we must submit to … it develops a cosmopolitan, universal energy which breaks through every limit and every bond and posts itself as the only policy, the only universality the only limit and the only bond”, he was highlighting the reality that labour can be purchased by liquid capital (ie money), in its commodity form, but that it will always carry with it a will hostile to the capitalist buyer. But Marx was not just making a psychological, philosophical or political statement. He was, rather, supplying a remarkable analysis of why the moment that labour (as an unquantifiable activity) sheds this hostility, it becomes sterile, incapable of producing value.

At a time when neoliberals have ensnared the majority in their theoretical tentacles, incessantly regurgitating the ideology of enhancing labour productivity in an effort to enhance competitiveness with a view to creating growth etc, Marx’s analysis offers a powerful antidote. Capital can never win in its struggle to turn labour into an infinitely elastic, mechanised input, without destroying itself. That is what neither the neoliberals nor the Keynesians will ever grasp. “If the whole class of the wage-labourer were to be annihilated by machinery”, wrote Marx “how terrible that would be for capital, which, without wage-labour, ceases to be capital!”

The third idea is the irony that it has fallen to the Left to save capitalism from itself and to build a modern state. The existing European elites (and, in my view, the elite in the United States) have failed to stem the tide and have allowed capitalism, in its ongoing crises and lopsided recoveries, to undermine democracy and the project of a unified Europe (and an inclusive United States)—although, of course, the Left cannot stop there. If it is going to play that role, it also needs to put additional issues on the table, such as the creation of economic democracy.

Europe’s elites are behaving today as if they understand neither the nature of the crisis that they are presiding over, nor its implications for the future of European civilisation. Atavistically, they are choosing to plunder the diminishing stocks of the weak and the dispossessed in order to plug the gaping holes of the financial sector, refusing to come to terms with the unsustainability of the task.

Yet with Europe’s elites deep in denial and disarray, the left must admit that we are just not ready to plug the chasm that a collapse of European capitalism would open up with a functioning socialist system. Our task should then be twofold. First, to put forward an analysis of the current state of play that non-Marxist, well meaning Europeans who have been lured by the sirens of neoliberalism, find insightful. Second, to follow this sound analysis up with proposals for stabilising Europe – for ending the downward spiral that, in the end, reinforces only the bigots.

Let me now conclude with two confessions. First, while I am happy to defend as genuinely radical the pursuit of a modest agenda for stabilising a system that I criticise, I shall not pretend to be enthusiastic about it. This may be what we must do, under the present circumstances, but I am sad that I shall probably not be around to see a more radical agenda being adopted.

All of those are important ideas, which have inspired Varoufakis and which the Left needs to discuss and debate. But, to my mind, the most intriguing idea is his mention—without a great deal of additional elaboration—of the fact that Marx was the “the scholar who elevated radical indeterminacy to its rightful place within political economics.” Theoretically, the idea of radical indeterminacy (or what others have called “overdetermination” and “aleatory materialism”) means resisting the temptation to formulate general laws and to focus instead on teasing out the contradictions of mainstream economics, carrying out conjunctural analyses, and establishing the basis of indeterminate outcomes. It also carries political implications: of arriving at provisional conclusions, making conditional pronouncements, and engaging—both sympathetically and critically—with other political forces on the Left.

Varoufakis likes to call himself an “erratic Marxist.” For me, those ideas are central to a tradition that can proudly call itself Marxist today.

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Haley Sweetland Edwards is right:

It’s true that wealthier Americans tend to vote for Republicans and that the less well-off tend to vote for Democrats. And it’s true that, in theory, such a demographic breakdown would be good for Dems. After all, in raw numbers, there are more—many, many times more—working-class Americans than there are folks at the top of the income pyramid.

Part of the problem, as Andrew J. Cherlin argues (and I noted back in 2011) is that the working-class has mostly disappeared from our political language. There’s lots of talk about the struggling middle-class—from both Democrats and Republicans—but no mention, let alone serious discussion, of the working-class.

Our political language has served to ignore the working-class status of most so-called middle-class Americans and, as a result, to confine the working-class (understood as workers without a college education), when it is mentioned at all, to a relatively small segment of the population. In other words, the working-class has come to be defined as the working-poor and the middle-class as something else.

As I see it, we’ll get a more accurate representation of our economic and political landscape if we redefine what we mean by the working-class. The fact is, what others understand to be working-class and middle-class actually have a lot in common. They may have different levels of education (high school, a year or two of college, and a four-year college degree), different color collars (blue, pink, and white), and work in different sectors (manufacturing and services, private and public) but they’re all pretty much in the same boat: they are forced to sell their ability to work to someone else in order to make enough money to support themselves and their families. That’s a very large part of the population. It basically excludes two relatively small groups: the capitalists at the top (who get the profits) and managers and supervisors (who manage the labor of others and get a cut of the profits).

If we follow the class analysis conducted by Edward N. Wolff and Ajit Zacharias [pdf], then we’re talking about 80 percent of the U.S. population who are members of the working-class.*

Unfortunately, the World Top-incomes Database doesn’t break things out in quite that way. However, if we use the average incomes of the bottom 90 percent as a proxy for the working-class, we can see (from the chart above) what has happened since 1960: the average real incomes (in 2012 dollars) of the bottom 90 percent have barely changed (from $25,014.76 in 1960 to $30,438.59 in 2012), while average real incomes of the top 1 percent (from $275,281.29 to $1,021,760.82) and top 0.1 percent (from $690,610.30 to $4,660,987.83) have soared. In percentage terms, the real incomes of the working-class only increased by 21.7 percent while those of the top 1 percent rose by 271 percent and those of the top 0.1 percent by 575 percent.

1945-2012

Now, as we know, the real incomes of the American working-class did rise during the immediate postwar period—almost doubling from 1945 to 1973. But then, even as productivity continued to climb, and, with a lag of about a decade, incomes at the very top started a dramatic rise, working-class real incomes have actually fallen. The result? Working-class incomes today (or, more accurately, in 2012) are 13 percent lower than they were in 1973.

As I see it, “there are more—many, many times more—working-class Americans than there are folks at the top of the income pyramid.” There are also more—many, many times more—working-class Americans than our political language currently allows.

And all those working-class Americans created the conditions for the dramatic rise of the small group at the top of the income pyramid during the decades leading up to the crash of 2007-08—and they’ve fallen further and further behind during the so-called recovery.

That’s the real condition of the working-class in the United States in 2015.

 

*According to their calculations, in 2000, about 2 percent of American households were classified as “capitalist” and 18.8 percent as “manager” or “supervisor.”

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Cornelia Strawser, in response to Brad DeLong, notes the importance of the declining labor share in U.S. national income.* She then poses a series of questions that, in her view, should be “raised in the academy and in public discourse”:

– Does the falling labor share arise from rapid technological change?

– Or does it reflect changing power relationships?

– Is it a result of globalization, hence inevitable and irreversible?

– Or is it an anomalous business cycle development that we can expect to fade away?

– What does increasing financialization contribute to the falling labor share?

– Is the labor share made worse by our reliance on monetary stimulus – which encourages more financialization – having failed to deploy a more stimulative fiscal policy?

– If private-sector productivity growth is not raising worker wages, why should workers support it, and should it be a national priority?

– Does the rising capital income share contribute as much to investment demand as the falling labor share subtracts from consumption? Or, since investment demand depends on final consumption demand, does the falling labor share instead cause a vicious downward spiral of self-reinforcing underconsumption and stagnation?

– Is there a case for a compensating structural tax reform that would place a relatively greater burden on capital incomes, and less on labor?

To which one might add an additional question: isn’t it time to reconsider the structure of corporate governance and give employees a role in running the enterprises in which they work?

 

*There are many different ways of measuring the labor share. In the chart above, I have calculated it in terms of total wage and salary accruals paid to individuals minus employer-paid supplements to wages and salaries, which are best interpreted as deductions from profits that do not go to employees but to others (such as health-insurance companies, retirement accounts, and so forth). Here’s a chart showing total wage and salary accruals with and without the supplements:

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Here’s a link to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis’s explanation of how they calculate compensation [pdf].