Posts Tagged ‘neoclassical’

The problems surrounding the central institution of capitalism—the corporation—are so widespread and enormous they’ve even provoked concern in sympathetic quarters, such as the Harvard Business School.

This past November, Harvard hosted a conference during which participants attempted to grapple with the tensions between Milton Friedman’s theory of the firm—according to which firms can and should only benefit society by focusing on maximizing shareholder value—and the growing political influence of corporations after Citizens United—when it has become increasingly easy for firms to tweak the rules of the game in their favor.

Now, for the rest of us—citizens, nonmainstream economists, and academics in disciplines outside of business and economics—both the history of corporations and the prevailing neoclassical theory of the firm present so many problems it’s hard to believe Friedman’s ideas are still taken seriously. Long before Citizens United, corporations have exercised a great deal of influence both inside (over their workers) and outside (in politics and in the wider society). That’s why the corporation has been a contested institution—legally, economically, politically—since its inception. Similarly, the neoclassical theory of the firm (initially in its “black box” form, then when the owner-manager agency problem was raised) has swept most of the serious problems under the theoretical rug.*

But for the scholars gathered at Harvard, the key issue (as presented in the brief paper coauthored by Harvard Business School faculty members Paul Healy, Rebecca Henderson, David Moss, and Karthik Ramanna [pdf]) was a relatively narrow one:

if firms have the power to generate profits not only by producing socially beneficial goods and services, but also by tilting public policy and the “rules of the game” to their advantage (whether through aggressive lobbying, effective use of the revolving door between political and corporate appointments, or campaign contributions), then the core assumption that firms can maximize social value by maximizing shareholder value may not hold, and framing managerial responsibility as simply a matter of maximizing shareholder value may well be inappropriate.

Having read the paper, it is extraordinary that there’s no real history—no story about the invention of the corporation as a legal “person,” no Louis Brandeis or the Progressive movement, no Knights of Labor or United Mineworkers, no mention of the role of International Telephone & Telegraph in overthrowing Salvador Allende in Chile, no Massey Energy killing 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch mine. It’s as if the problem of corporate power only emerged after the 2010 Citizens United decision.

Still, from the perspective of neoclassical economics, even that problem looms large. According to the reigning paradigm (which guides much policy and is taught to hundreds of thousands of students every year), under conditions of perfect competition, free markets (including firms that maximize shareholder value) lead to Pareto-efficient outcomes. But if corporations (whether single firms or industries) can shape the institutions of the market (or the rules and ethical customs that help to maintain them), then all bets are off: “Maximizing shareholder value by deliberately distorting critical market institutions or regulations for private advantage seems unlikely to lead to the maximization of social value.”

That’s why the participants in the Harvard conference were caught between the real implications of Citizens United (that corporations can increasingly bend the social rules to their private advantage) and their continued adherence to the neoclassical theory of the firm (according to which maximizing shareholder value also maximizes social value).

I suppose it’s no surprise, then, which won out at the Harvard conference:

“I went into the conference with the understanding that one could question the premise of the Neoclassical paradigm in economics through logical arguments—e.g., the inconsistencies between Friedman’s assumptions and Stigler’s theory. I left with a sense that logical arguments on their own are unlikely to carry the day, because the Neoclassical paradigm is so powerfully ingrained into the discipline, into the fabric of modern economics,” says Ramanna.


*Including the problem neoclassical economists share with many of their heterodox counterparts, namely, what exactly does it mean that corporations maximize profits or shareholder value? First, how do we define profits or shareholder value, i.e., what is the appropriate metric, over what time horizon should it be defined, and how should it be measured? Second, corporations do many different things, such as exploit workers, give lavish pay to top managers, attempt to eliminate rivals, chart particular short-run and long-term growth path, buy favors and influence legislation, hoard cash, accumulate capital, and so on—why reduce all of what they do to a single dimension?


Uncertainty, as we wrote years ago, is a real problem. Not a problem in and of itself. But it’s certainly a problem for modernist thinking.

That’s why, time and gain, neoclassical economists have attempted to reduce uncertainty to probabilistic certainty. It also seems to be why a team of scientists (neurobiologists and others) [ht: ja] have devised an experiment to show that we’re hardwired to experience stress under uncertainty.

So what’s the big deal? Everyone knows that uncertainty is stressful. But what’s not so obvious is that uncertainty is more stressful than predictable negative consequences. Is it really more stressful wondering whether you’ll make it to your meeting on time than knowing you’ll be late? Is it more stressful wondering if you’re about to get sacked than being relatively sure of it? De Berker’s results provide a resounding “yes”.

There are two problems with this approach. First, it ignores the possibility that uncertainty is a discursive phenomenon—that the stories we tell about uncertainty affect how we experience it. Second, uncertainty in and of itself need not be stressful. There are plenty of instances in which the outcome is simply unknown—from sitting down to write a paper to starting a new investment project, from starting a new relationship to participating in a political movement—when our uncertainty about what might happen is precisely what propels us forward.

Sure, turning over rocks that might have snakes hidden under them would probably induce stress. But that’s not because of the uncertainty; it’s because they’re snakes! (And, even then, I have herpetologist friends who would be delighted to find those snakes.)

Let’s just say I’m not convinced of the project to domesticate and control uncertainty, either by reducing it to a probabilistic calculus or to locate it in the brain (as part of some evolutionary process).

There’s lots of uncertainty out there but what it is and how we respond to it depend on the stories we tell (as I have written about many times on this blog). Uncertainty, in other words, is always and everywhere a discursive phenomenon.


There’s no doubt, after the crash of 2007-08, students—including those in middle schools—could use more economics education.

Unfortunately, they’re not getting it. They’re just being exposed to propaganda.

“What is the basic economic problem all societies face?” April Higgins asks her sixth-grade class.

Ava Watson, raises her hand: “Scarcity.”

The teacher asks for a definition and the class responds, in unison: “People have unlimited wants but limited resources.”

Not bad for a bunch of sixth-graders.

What April Higgins is engaged in is not economics education. It’s just neoclassical economics.

You see, there is no single “economic problem.” It all depends on which theory we’re looking at. According to neoclassical economists, all societies in all places and times have faced the same problem: scarcity. And, of course, private property and markets are their proposed solution.

But that’s not the economic problem as defined by Keynesians (how to analyze and use the visible hand of government to get out of less-than-full-employment equilibria) or Marxists (how is the surplus produced, appropriated, and distributed and how can exploitation be eliminated) or many other schools of thought.

The fact is, middle-school economics education (like high-school, undergraduate, and graduate economics education) is dominated by one school of thought, one approach among many, that is presented as “economics.” In the singular.

And that’s because it’s run by the Council for Economic Education and stipulated, in some instances, by government decree:

The Texas education code states that economics must be taught with an emphasis on the free market system and its benefits.

Economics education, at any level, means exposing students to and having them grapple with the assumptions and consequences of different economic theories and systems. Focusing only on one approach and system—neoclassical economic theory and capitalism—is just propaganda.


Those of us in economics are confronted on a regular basis with the fantasy of perfect markets. It’s the idea, produced and presumed by neoclassical economists, that markets capture all the relevant costs and benefits of producing and exchanging commodities. Therefore, the conclusion is, if a market for something exists, it should be allowed to operate freely, and, if it doesn’t exist, it should be created. Then, when markets are allowed to flourish, the economy as a whole will reach a global optimum, what is often referred to as Pareto efficiency.

OK. Clearly, in the real world, that’s a silly proposition. And the idea of “market imperfections” is certainly catching on.

I’m thinking, for example, of Robert Shiller (who, along with George Akerlof, recently published Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception):

Don’t get us wrong: George and I are certainly free-market advocates. In fact, I have argued for years that we need more such markets, like futures markets for single-family home prices or occupational incomes, or markets that would enable us to trade claims on gross domestic product. I’ve written about these things in this column.

But, at the same time, we both believe that standard economic theory is typically overenthusiastic about unregulated free markets. It usually ignores the fact that, given normal human weaknesses, an unregulated competitive economy will inevitably spawn an immense amount of manipulation and deception.

And then there’s Robert Reich, who focuses on the upward redistributions going on every day, from the rest of us to the rich, that are hidden inside markets.

For example, Americans pay more for pharmaceuticals than do the citizens of any other developed nation.

That’s partly because it’s perfectly legal in the U.S. (but not in most other nations) for the makers of branded drugs to pay the makers of generic drugs to delay introducing cheaper unbranded equivalents, after patents on the brands have expired.

This costs you and me an estimated $3.5 billion a year – a hidden upward redistribution of our incomes to Pfizer, Merck, and other big proprietary drug companies, their executives, and major shareholders.

We also pay more for Internet service than do the inhabitants of any other developed nation.

The average cable bill in the United States rose 5 percent in 2012 (the latest year available), nearly triple the rate of inflation.

Why? Because 80 percent of us have no choice of Internet service provider, which allows them to charge us more.

Internet service here costs 3 and-a-half times more than it does in France, for example, where the typical customer can choose between 7 providers.

And U.S. cable companies are intent on keeping their monopoly.

And the list of such market imperfections could, of course, go on.

The problem, as I see it, is that these critics tend to focus on the sphere of markets and to forget about what is happening outside of markets, in the realm of production, where labor is performed and value is produced. The critics’ idea is that, if only we recognize the existence of widespread market imperfections, we can make the market system work better (and nudge people to achieve better outcomes). My concern is that, even if all markets work perfectly, a tiny group at the top who perform no labor still get to appropriate the surplus labor of those who do.

Accepting that our task is to make imperfect markets work better makes us all look like fools. In the end, it does nothing to eliminate that fundamental redistribution going on every day, “from the rest of us to the rich,” which is hidden outside the market.


Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller recently made the case for solidarity-based consumerism in response to Apple’s business model:

Faced with a global political economy that condones such a business model, proponents of solidarity between electronics workers and digital consumers(link is external) have big ambitions. They aim to eliminate the estrangement between worker and consumer, awaken consciousness of the political and economic ties that bind them, and install resolute ethical commitments to building a new kind of bond based in mutuality, justice, and equality that stretches across the global supply chain of electronic goods.

As consumers, we should support a solidarity-based consumerism. The alternative is the status quo where profits are beat out of the lives of electronics workers while consumers pay a premium to keep the mark-ups feeding those profits. To the egoistic consumer, we say it’s time to stop blaming higher wages for higher prices. Instead, ask Apple, the most valuable company in the world, to lower its prices and pay good wages directly to factory workers who make their i-Things. Trust us, they won’t go broke.

They base their argument on an analysis of the financial relationships between Electronic Manufacturing Services (providers such as Flextronics, Foxconn, and Jabil) and the Brand Names (like Apple) of consumer electronics by industry veteran Anthony Harris (pdf).

Harris’s example clearly shows how the wages of workers who actually produce smart phones and other electronic gadgets are a small (he estimates them to be 2 percent) of the final price of those commodities.

All along the product supply chain – from the component supplier to the assembly factory to the retail outlet – prices are factored up by percentage of goods value. The factory price is marked-up on basis of invoice value without differentiating between cost of labour, manufacturing complexity, materials, IP, or other value. The EMS selling price gets a margin added every time it is moving down the chain. For example, a smartphone with a factory price of 100 Euro of which 2 Euro = labour costs. Next in line exports to USA/Europe and adds 30% (logistics, management, margin) = 130 Euro. Distributor in USA adds another 30% for logistics, risk and labour = 169 Euro. The store adds its percentage and then there is the internet provider contract and Vat, all pushing upwards to 500 Euro. With this standard business model mark-up on the EMS selling price the actual labour cost becomes almost insignificant as an element of the retail store price.

He also explains the high cost to workers of “flexibility” at the bottom of the chain:

To illustrate what happens: When Apple launched the initial manufacturing of the iPhone, a screen change was suddenly required. 8,000 workers were woken from their dormitories in the middle of the night in China. Within 30 minutes, after being given tea and biscuits, they began an unscheduled 12-hour shift to kick-start the change for the new screens. Foxconn relentlessly ramped up production to 10,000 pieces (a day) after only four days. One Apple executive, as quoted in The New York Times, said “That speed and flexibility is breath taking. There’s no American plant that can match that.”

Breath taking speed and flexibility, however, come at a human price, which clearly American workers at that time were not prepared to endure. Yet with a cup of tea and a biscuit, impoverished Chinese workers were all too ready to earn some extra money to help cover basic costs and feed their families.

I am interested in Harris’s analysis because, in class the other day, the students wanted to know if the iPhone represented an example of a utility theory of value or a labor theory of value. (We were discussing the different assumptions and consequences of those two theories of value.) And, when I answered that both theories could be used to make sense of the price of an iPhone but the two theories were incompatible, they wanted to know if it was possible to combine them (rather than choose between them).

Let me pose a bit of a different question: which of the two theories is more compatible with the kind of solidarity-based consumerism Maxwell and Miller are advocating?

According to the utility (or neoclassical) theory of value, the final price of an iPhone represents a balance between supply and demand and, as such, reflects the preferences, technology, and resource endowments of the societies at each stage of the supply chain. In particular, the workers in the Electronic Manufacturing Services, who receive low wages and agree to flexible rules, are being paid according to their productivity and desire to work. No more, no less. Therefore, consumers can remain content to purchase their iPhones at the going price and, if by chance they become aware of what’s going at the bottom, let “the market” work things out. No need to worry.

According to a labor theory of value (in particular, a Marxian labor theory of value), the final price of an iPhone represents something else: it’s a combination of the materials and equipment purchased to produce and transport iPhones, the wages paid to workers at various stages of the supply chain, and a surplus created by those workers. That surplus is in turn used for various purposes: taxes to governments, salaries of executives, dividends to shareholders, and, perhaps most important, an extensive advertising campaign to make sure millions of people continue to want to purchase more iPhones. And the less workers are paid on the bottom and at each stage of the supply chain, and the more “flexible” are their work rules, the more surplus Apple is able to appropriate and the higher price at which they can sell their smart phones.

Clearly, a labor theory of value is more compatible with Maxwell and Miller’s solidarity-based consumerism. It makes people aware of the work and value-creation that are taking place at each stage of the supply chain—from the initial research and development through the production of the phones to their transportation to wherever they are sold—and the amount of surplus Apple is able to capture for its own purposes.

In the end, those are the high costs that serve as the basis of the high price of our iPhones.



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.

Is Dan Price [ht:sm], the founder and CEO of Gravity Payments who raised the salaries of his employees and slashed his own pay, a socialist hero?

Well, no. Not really. Price certainly doesn’t think so. And, in the end, he—not Gravity’s employees as a group—is the one who decided what the new pay scheme would look like. He is the one who took the decision to distribute some of the surplus produced by his workers back to them in the form of higher wages and to take a smaller amount of that surplus in his compensation.

But I do like the fact that the two KTVB interviewers, Dee Sarton and Carolyn Holly, are clearly taken with Dan Price and his decision—which presumably stand in sharp contrast to all the other CEOs they’ve been forced to interview over the years.

Even more, Price’s decision proves once again (as I argued back in 2013) that “capitalists do lots of different things.”

They do make profits (at least sometimes, but over what timeframe are they supposedly maximizing those profits?). But they don’t follow any single rule. They also seek to grow their enterprises and destroy the competition and maintain good public relations and buy government officials and reward their CEOs and squeeze workers and lower costs and build factories that collapse and. . .well, you get the idea. In other words, they appropriate and distribute surplus-value in all kinds of ways depending on the particular conditions and struggles that take place over the shape and direction of their enterprises.

So, I’m not prepared to celebrate Price as a “good capitalist,” as against all the “bad capitalists” who are choosing to increase the gap between average workers’ pay and the enormous payments to CEOs.

My point is a actually somewhat different: first, that capitalists—whether in Columbus or Seattle—do lots of different things, and presuming they follow a simple rule (whether profit-maximization as in the usual neoclassical story, or the accumulation of capital in many heterodox stories) means missing out on the complex, contradictory dynamics of capitalist enterprises; and second, that other kinds of enterprises (in which workers themselves make the decisions about how the surplus is appropriated and distributed) would do even more, on a wider scale, to transform the dynamics of the distribution of income and wealth in the U.S. economy.