Posts Tagged ‘Marx’



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.

Only in America

Posted: 6 August 2015 in Uncategorized
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Apparently, the New York Times got Marx’s obituary wrong—some twelve years prematurely.


Special mention


The current situation in Greece appears hopeless. After two European bailouts and five years of Draconian austerity measures, which have left much of Greece in tatters, the Syriza-led government has been forced to accept a third bailout and the imposition of new austerity measures, which will only continue the current depression and leave the country with no real prospects of repaying the accumulation of new debts.

If that’s not a hopeless situation, I don’t know what is.

But Slavoj Žižek [ht: db] invokes Giorgio Agamben to the effect that “thought is the courage of hopelessness.”

The true courage is not to imagine an alternative, but to accept the consequences of the fact that there is no clearly discernible alternative: the dream of an alternative is a sign of theoretical cowardice; it functions as a fetish that prevents us thinking through to the end the deadlock of our predicament. In short, the true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is most likely the headlights of another train approaching us from the opposite direction. There is no better example of the need for such courage than Greece today.

I think Žižek is right, although Marx may have put it even better: “You will hardly suggest that my opinion of the present is too exalted and if I do not despair about it, this is only because its desperate position fills me with hope.”

Marx (in a May 1843 letter) was responding to Arnold Ruge, who had expressed a resigned certainty that there could be no popular revolution in Germany. Marx then proceeds to demonstrate how we need to “start all over again”—by studying the philistine “lords of the world” (“lords of the world only in the sense that they fill it with their presence, as worms fill a corpse”), who wallow in “their passive and thoughtless existence.” Marx concludes with the hope that the “enemies of philistinism, i.e., all thinking and suffering people” will eventually arrive at a critical understanding of the old order, which will serve to create a fundamental rupture within existing society and usher in a new one.

The same task has to be taken up today in Greece and, even more so, Europe. Each day we learn more (e.g., thanks to Neil Irwin and others) about how Germany prevailed in the negotiations over Greece in the most recent bailout—and how the rest of Europe (from Lisbon to Latvia) accepted and reinforced the terms of the deal.

The temerity of the Greek government was to challenge the idea that “business as usual”—strict adherence to the existing rules and procedures, from bankers’ dress codes and polite public pronouncements to suggestions (by, among others, Slovenian Finance Minister Dusan Mramor and Wolfgang Schäuble) that the only way the mounting debt could be written down was for Greece to “temporarily” leave the euro zone—would solve the existing problems in Greece and the other austerity-ravaged countries in Europe.

In the end, of course, the Greeks lost. Thus, they have been forced to cobble together parliamentary votes that roll back some of the anti-austerity measures adopted by Syriza since assuming power in January, in addition to levying higher taxes and renewing the program to privatize state assets—just to fend off a liquidity crisis in the banking sector and then to enter into a new round of negotiations over the exact terms of the bailout.

The current situation does, indeed, appear hopeless.

However, in challenging the terms of the bailout—first, in supporting the “no” vote in the 5 July referendum and, then, in Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s statements that his government would not implement reform measures beyond those agreed with lenders at the euro zone summit this month—the Greek government has come to represent all the “thinking and suffering people” of Europe and to expose the “passive and thoughtless existence” that characterizes the “lords of the world” who currently reign on that continent.

It is one moment in a long process that is showing the world how the current system cannot solve the problems it has created.

That, perhaps, should fill us with hope.

Apparently, the British artist-film-maker Isaac Julien is directing a public reading of all three volumes of Marx’s Capital at the Venice Biennale [ht: sk]. (Julien is the director of a 2013 film Kapital, which is also being shown at the biennale.)

Perhaps it was too much to ask that the curator of the biennale’s central exhibition, Okwui Enwezor, actually understand his Marx (although the reporter, Charlotte Higgins, evidently does):

So what is the corollary of staging Das Kapital? I ask Enwezor. Did not Marx foresee the end of capitalism, inevitably brought down by its internal contradictions? “His programme was to use capitalism to achieve social equality,” says Enwezor. “I don’t think that Marx, had he lived, would have wanted capitalism to end.” I am slightly confused by this: I am no Marx expert, but I had gained the distinct impression that although Marx admired the energy and inventiveness of capitalism, he wanted it overthrown and replaced with a system that allowed people justice and dignity.

employment gap

Mainstream economists have, it seems, rediscovered what we’ve known since at least the middle of the nineteenth century: capitalism produces a relative surplus population of unemployed and unemployed workers. And that surplus of labor puts downward pressure on workers’ wages.

Back then it was called the “industrial reserve army.” I have referred to it since 2010 as the “reserve army of the underemployed.” David G. Blanchflower and Andrew T. Levin now point to the same phenomenon in terms of the “employment gap,” that is, the combination of conventional unemployment (individuals who did have a job, are now not working at all, and are actively searching for a job), underemployment (that is, people working part time who want a full-time job), and hidden unemployment (people who are not actively searching but who would rejoin the workforce if the job market were stronger).

What Blanchflower and Levin find is instructive.

First, the conventional unemployment rate has not served as an accurate reflection of the evolution of labor market slack.

it is evident that the U.S. economic recovery remains far from complete in spite of apparently reassuring recent signals from the conventional unemployment rate. Indeed, while the unemployment gap has become quite small, the incidence of underemployment remains elevated and the size of the labor force remains well below CBO’s assessment of its potential. In particular, the employment gap currently stands at 1.9 percent, suggesting that the “true” unemployment rate (including underemployment and hidden unemployment) should be viewed as around 71⁄2 percent. Gauged in human terms, the current magnitude of the employment shortfall is equivalent to about 3.3 million full-time jobs.

Second, in recent years, wage growth has been pushed down by a combination of the unemployment rate, the nonparticipation rate, and the underemployment rate. In particular,

we suspect that the wage curve is relatively flat at elevated levels of labor market slack, i.e., a decline in slack does not generate any significant wage pressures as long as the level of slack remains large. As noted above, our benchmark analysis indicates that the true unemployment rate is currently around 71⁄2 percent—a notable decline from its peak of more than 10 percent but still well above its longer-run normal level of around 5 percent. Thus, the shape of the wage curve can explain why nominal wage growth has remained stagnant at around 2 percent over the past few years even as the employment gap has diminished substantially. Moreover, our interpretation suggests that nominal wages will not begin to accelerate until labor market slack diminishes substantially further and and the true unemployment rate approaches its longer-run normal level of around 5 percent.

In other words, what Blanchflower and Levin have discovered is that there is a large relative surplus population of workers and that the existence of such a reserve army has a dampening effect on workers’ wages.

Now, all they need to do is discover a third component of what we’ve known since the Mohr wrote back in 1867: “The labouring population therefore produces, along with the accumulation of capital produced by it, the means by which it itself is made relatively superfluous, is turned into a relative surplus population; and it does this to an always increasing extent. This is a law of population peculiar to the capitalist mode of production”


I’m off tomorrow to teach a couple of classes and to give a university-wide lecture on “Utopia and Critique: A Marxian Perspective” at Manchester University.

From my opening remarks:

It is indeed a sign of our times that I have been invited to address you all this evening on the idea of utopia and from an explicitly Marxian perspective. It’s a sign that, in the midst of the Second Great Depression, capitalism is being calling into question and more and more people are searching for and imagining alternatives. And it’s a sign of the vibrancy of this university, which clearly welcomes the discussion of critique, even as across the country students and faculty members are being encouraged to put aside critical thinking and get on with the business of education.