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.