Posts Tagged ‘profits’

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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.

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Until recently, we were certain what would happen with an increase in the minimum wage—and that would be the reason to oppose any and all such attempts. Now, it’s a guessing game—and that uncertainty about its possible effects has become reason enough to oppose increasing the minimum wage.

What the hell is going on?

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First, the certainty: neoclassical economists confidently asserted that the minimum wage caused unemployment (because it meant, at a wage above the equilibrium wage, the quantity supplied of labor would be created than the quantity demanded). Therefore, any increase in the minimum wage would cause more unemployment and, despite the best intentions of people who wanted to raise the minimum wage, it would actually hurt the poor, since many would lose their jobs.

But, of course, theoretically, the neoclassical labor-market model was missing all kinds of other effects, from wage efficiencies (e.g., higher wages might reduce labor turnover and increase productivity) to market spillovers (e.g., higher wages might lead to more spending, which would in turn increase the demand for labor). If you take those into account, the effects of increasing the minimum wage became more uncertain: it might or might not lead to some workers losing their jobs but those same workers might get jobs elsewhere as economic activity picked up precisely because workers who kept their jobs might be more productive and spend more of their higher earnings.

And that’s precisely what the new empirical studies have concluded: some have find a little less employment, others a bit more employment. In the end, the employment effects are pretty much a wash—and workers are receiving higher wages.

But that’s mostly for small increases in the minimum wage. What if the increase were larger—say, from $7.25 to $10, $12, or $15 an hour?

Well, we just don’t know. All we can do is guess what the effects might be at the local, state, or national level. But conservatives (like David Brooks, big surprise!) are seizing on that uncertainty to oppose increasing the minimum wage.

And that’s what I find interesting: uncertainty, which was at one time (e.g., for conservatives like economist Frank Knight) the spur to action, is now taken to be the reason for inaction. And those who oppose increasing the minimum wage are now choosing the certainty of further misery for minimum-wage workers over the uncertainty of attempting to improve their lot.

Addendum

They want less of a guessing game?

Then, let’s make the effects of raising the minimum wage more certain. Why not increase government expenditures in areas where raising the minimum wage represents a dramatic increase for workers? Or mandate that employers can’t fire any of the low-wage workers once the minimum wage is increased? Or, if an employer chooses to close an enterprise rather than pay workers more, hand the enterprise over to the workers themselves? Any or all of those measures would increase the certainty of seeing positive effects for the working poor of raising the minimum wage.

But then we’re talking about a different game—of capital versus labor, of profits versus wages. And we know, with a high degree of certainty, the choices neoclassical economists and conservative pundits make in that game.

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Capitalism, as we know, has become more and more exclusive—benefiting a tiny minority at the very top and leaving everyone else further and further behind.

Not surprisingly, there are all kinds of schemes to make capitalism more inclusive. The latest, from Hillary Clinton and endorsed by Joseph R. Blasi, Douglas L. Kruse, and Richard B. Freeman, is to spread the benefits of economic growth to workers via profit-sharing.

In the United States last year, close to 20 percent of private-sector employees owned stock, and 7 percent held stock options, in the companies where they worked, while about one-third participated in some kind of cash profit-sharing and one-fourth in gain-sharing (when workers get additional compensation based on improvement on a metric other than profits, like sales or customer satisfaction). An exemplar was Southwest Airlines, which paid $355 million of its more than $1 billion in corporate profits last year to union and nonunion workers and managers, on top of salaries.

Our research found that these programs, when combined with worker participation in solving problems, and increased training and job security, raise productivity and benefit workers.

I’m all in favor of workers getting more, whether in the form of higher wages, more generous benefits, or receiving a distributed share of the profits.

The problem, of course, is that—as we’ve seen in the case of the auto industry—workers only benefit when profits are high. And profits are high in part because workers’ wages are low. Plus, workers have no say in determining the conditions under which their enterprises decide if, when, and how they will realize profits in any given year or over a period of time.

Why not get rid of the middle-men (the shareholder-elected boards of directors and the top executives who currently make the key decisions in enterprises) and let the workers themselves decide, as a group, how their enterprises will operate? Let the workers get together on a regular basis and discuss how much surplus there will be and how the surplus they produce will be utilized—how much of the surplus will be put back into their enterprises, how much will be distributed to the communities in which they live, and how much they’ll take home in their pay packages.

Now that would be a real way of sharing the profits and making the economy more inclusive.