Posts Tagged ‘profits’

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I’m always pleased when Marx’s critique of political economy and the theory of value are topics of discussion, especially since students are rarely exposed to those ideas in their usual mainstream economics courses. Their professors generally don’t know about any theory of value other than the neoclassical economics they learned and preach—and, as a consequence, students aren’t taught that there is a fundamental critique of the neoclassical theory of value that stems from Marx’s work.

The result is, in fact, quite embarrassing. When I ask students to compare Marx’s theory of profits with the neoclassical theory of profits, they have no idea what I’m talking about. The way they learn economics from my neoclassical colleagues, profits are competed away. “So,” I ask them, “what you have is a theory of capitalism according to which there are no profits”? Then, of course, I have to start all over, teach them the neoclassical theory of profits (as the normal return to capital, rK, where r is the profit rate and K the amount of capital) and only then explain to them the Marxian critique of neoclassical profits (based on s, the amount of surplus-value that arises through exploitation). I am forced to make up for mainstream economists’ poor understanding and explanation of their own theory.

So, good, we now have a new discussion of Marx’s approach—first in the form of Branko Milanovic’s “primer” and then in Fred Moseley’s response to Milanovic. Both are well worth reading in their entirety—and I agree with many of the ideas they put forward.

But I do have a few major disagreements with their treatments. Milanovic, for example, insists that Marx develops his theory through three kinds of production: non-capitalism, “petty commodity production,” and capitalism. I read Marx differently. My view is that Marx starts with the commodity and then proceeds to develop, step by step (across volumes 1, 2, and 3 of Capital), the conditions of existence of capitalist commodity production, which is the goal of the analysis. These are not different historical stages or kinds of production but, rather, different levels of abstraction. So, conceptually, Marx starts from one proposition (that the value and exchange-value of commodities are equal to the amount of socially necessary abstract labor-time embodied in their production), then proceeds to another (where the value and exchange-value of commodities are equal to the value of capital, both variable and constant, and surplus-value embodied in the commodity during the course of production), and finally to a third level (where value and exchange-value can’t be equal, since the price of production, p, now includes an average rate of return on capital).

My other two concerns pertain to both authors. Milanovic and Moseley assert that Marx’s focus was mainly at the macro level, “the determination of the total profit (or surplus-value) produced in the capitalist economy as a whole.” I didn’t understand that idea back in 2013 and I remain unconvinced today. As I see it, Marx focused on both the micro and macro level and in fact worked to make his theory consistent at the two levels. Starting with the value of individual commodities (as I explained above), Marx concluded that, at the aggregate level, two identities needed to hold: the total value of commodities equaled the sum of their prices, and total surplus-value equalled total profits. That’s both a micro theory and a macro theory, a theory of value, price, and profit at both levels.*

The second, and perhaps most important, idea missing from Milanovic’s and Moseley’s interpretations of Marx’s approach is critique. Both authors proceed as if Marx developed his own theory of labor value, instead of seeing it as a critique of the classicals’ theory of value (which, we must remember, is the sub-title of Capital, “A Critique of Political Economy”). In my view, Marx begins where the classicals leave off (with an “immense accumulation of commodities,” Adam Smith’s wealth of nations) and then shows how the production of wealth in a capitalist society involves the performance, appropriation, and distribution of surplus labor.

That’s Marx’s class critique of political economy, which pertains as much to the mainstream economics of our time as to his.

 

*I don’t have the space here to explain how, for any individual commodity, the amount of value embodied during the course of its production won’t generally be equal to the amount of value for which the commodity exchanges. It is conceptually important that individual commodities have both numbers—value and exchange-value—attached to them, especially when they are not quantitatively equal at the micro level. It speaks to the fact that surplus-value is both appropriated (by capitalists from workers, through exploitation) and redistributed (among capitalists, within and across industries).

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The latest—and, in terms of the presidential campaign, last—jobs report was generally greeted with cheers.

Here’s a representative example, from FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman:

It may be too late to affect Tuesday’s election, but the economy is finally delivering real wage growth to American workers.

The average U.S. employee earned $25.92 an hour in October, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday. That’s up 2.8 percent from a year earlier, the fastest growth since 2009. Non-managers — what the BLS calls “production and non-supervisory employees” — saw their earnings rise a more modest 2.4 percent, but they too are seeing gains that are running well ahead of inflation.

That may be true. But what Casselman and others fail to mention is that, since 2009 (and therefore the beginning of the current “recovery”) the growth in corporate profits has far outpaced the growth in wages. As of the end of the second quarter of 2016, the profits realized by the nation’s corporations had increased by about 60 percent while hourly wages had risen only 15.6 percent.

In other words, even with the recent declines in the rate of unemployment (and the subsequent upward pressure on workers’ wages), the so-called recovery has been much better for corporations and their bottom-line than it has been for workers and their ability to feed their families.

No wonder, then, that there’s a lack of enthusiasm on the part of U.S. workers for either candidate in this year’s presidential election.

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We’ve just learned that the corporate payouts—dividends and stock buybacks—of large U.S. firms are expected to hit another record this year. At the same time, John Fernald writes for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco that the “new normal” for U.S. GDP growth has dropped to between 1½ and 1¾ percent, noticeably slower than the typical postwar pace.

What’s the connection?

Fernald, as is typical of many others who have concluded the United States has entered a period of slow growth, blames the “new normal” on exogenous events like population dynamics and education.

The slowdown stems mainly from demographics and educational attainment. As baby boomers retire, employment growth shrinks. And educational attainment of the workforce has plateaued, reducing its contribution to productivity growth through labor quality. The GDP growth forecast assumes that, apart from these effects, the modest productivity growth is relatively “normal”—in line with its pace for most of the period since 1973.

What Fernald and the others never mention is that American companies’ embrace of dividends and buybacks comes at the expense of business investment, which is an important contributor to worker productivity and long-term economic growth.

In other words, what they overlook is the possibility that the current slowdown—which, “for workers, means slow growth in average wages and living standards”—may be less a product of exogenous events and more the way the U.S. economy is currently organized.

When workers produce but do not appropriate the surplus, they are victims of a social theft. And then, when a larger and larger portion of of the surplus is distributed to shareholders (both outside investors and corporate executives)—that is, the tiny group at the top who share in the booty—workers are, once again, made to pay the cost.

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Provoked, first, by liberal celebrations of the recent decline in the poverty rate in the United States—and, then, by conservative attempts to dismiss the issue of inequality, I decided to run some numbers. Just to see.

As it turns out, the corporate profit share (on the right in the chart above) and the poverty rate (on the left) appear to have moved in tandem since the mid-1990s: when the profit share declines, so does the poverty rate, and vice versa.

This is one of those times when I don’t have a theory or an explanation. But I was reminded of that long-forgotten ruthless critic of political economy:

Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital.