Posts Tagged ‘profits’

Inflation continues to run hot—and now, finally, the debate about inflation is heating up.

On one side of the debate are mainstream economists and lobbyists for big business, the people Lydia DePillis refers to as having a simple mantra: “Supply and demand, Economics 101.” In their view, inflation is caused by supply and demand in the labor market, which is allowing workers’ wages to increase at an unsustainable rate (a story that, as I showed in April, has no validity), and supply and demand in the economy as a whole, with too much money chasing too few goods.

Simple, straightforward, and. . .wrong.

Fortunately, there’s another side to the debate, with heterodox economists and progressive activists arguing that increasingly dominant corporations are taking advantage of the current situation (the pandemic, disruptions in global supply-chains, the war in Ukraine, and so on) to jack up prices and rake in even higher profits than they’ve been able to do in recent times.

Josh Bivens, of the Economic Policy Institute, has offered two arguments that challenge the mainstream story: First, while “It is unlikely that either the extent of corporate greed or even the power of corporations generally has increased during the past two years. . .the already-excessive power of corporations has been channeled into raising prices rather than the more traditional form it has taken in recent decades: suppressing wages.” Second, inflation can’t simply be the result of macroeconomic overheating. That would suggest, at this point in a classic economic recovery, that profits should be shrinking and the labor share of income should be rising. As Biven notes, “The fact that the exact opposite pattern has happened so far in the recovery should cast much doubt on inflation expectations rooted simply in claims of macroeconomic overheating.”*

So, we have dramatically different analyses of the causes of the current inflation, and of course two very different strategies for combatting inflation. The mainstream policy (as I also wrote about in April) is to slow the rate of growth of the economy (for example, by raising interest rates) and increase the level of unemployment, thus slowing the rate of increase of both wages and prices. And the alternative? Bivens supports a temporary excess profits tax. Other possibilities—which, alas, are not yet being raised in the debate—include price controls (especially on commodities that make up workers’ wage bundles), government provisioning of basic wage goods (including, for example, baby formula), and subsidies to workers (which, while they wouldn’t necessarily lower inflation, would at least make it easier for workers to maintain their current standard of living).

What we’re witnessing, then, is an important debate about the causes and consequences of inflation. But, as DePillis understands, the debate is about much more than that: “The real disagreement is over whether higher profits are natural and good.

In the end, that’s what all key debates in economics are about. Profits are the most contentious issue in economics precisely because the analysis of profits reflects both a theory and ethics about two things: whether capitalists deserve the profits they capture and what they can and should do with those profits. For example, profits can be theorized as a return to capital (and therefore natural and fair, as in mainstream economics) or they are the result of price-gouging (and therefore social and unfair, as in Bivens’s theory of corporate power).**

Similarly, capitalists can be seen as investing their profits (and therefore making their firms and the economy as a whole more productive, with everyone benefitting) or they can distribute a significant portion of their profits toward other uses (such as pursuing mergers and acquisitions, engaging in stock buybacks, and offering higher dividends, which do nothing to increase productivity but instead lead to more corporate concentration and make the distribution of income and wealth even more unequal).

Mainstream economists and capitalists have long sought to convince us that profits are both natural and good. In other words, when it comes to corporate profits and escalating charges of “greedflation,” they prefer to see, hear, and say no evil. The rest of us know what’s actually going on—that corporations are taking advantage of current conditions to raise prices, both to increase their profits and to lower workers’ real wages. We also know that traditional attempts to contain inflation through monetary policy will hurt workers but not their employers or the tiny group that sits at the top of the economic pyramid.

It’s clear then: the debate about inflation is actually a debate about profits. And the debate about profits is, in the end, a debate about capitalism. The sooner we recognize that, the better off we’ll all be.

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*Even the Wall Street Journal admits that the wage share is not in fact growing: “The labor share of national output is roughly where it was before the pandemic.” Moreover, the current situation represents just a continuation of the trend of recent decades: “Over the last two decades. . .the share of U.S. income that goes to labor has fallen, despite periods of low unemployment.”

**Corporate profits can also be theorized as the result of exploitation (and thus a different kind of social determination and unfairness, as in Marxian theory).

Everyone knows that inflation in the United States is increasing. Anyone who has read the news, or for that matter has gone shopping lately. Prices are rising at the fastest rate in decades. The Consumer Price Index rose 8.6 percent in March, which is the highest rate of increase since December 1981 (when it was 8.9 percent).

Clearly, inflation is hurting lots of people—especially the elderly living on fixed incomes and workers whose wages aren’t keeping up the price increases. No mystery there.

The only real mystery is, what’s causing the current inflation? That’s where things gets interesting.

To listen to or read mainstream economists the answer to the whodunnit is workers’ wages. They’re going up too fast, because the level of unemployment is too low and their employers are forced to pay them higher wages. As a result, corporations are compelled to raise their prices. Therefore, something has to be done (like increasing interest rates) to slow down the economy and force more workers into the Reserve Army of the Underemployed and Unemployed.*

That’s exactly how Paul Krugman sees things:

The U.S. economy still looks overheated. Rising wages are a good thing, but right now they’re rising at an unsustainable pace. . .

This excess wage growth probably won’t recede until the demand for workers falls back into line with the available supply, which probably — I hate to say this — means that we need to see unemployment tick up at least a bit.

The amazing thing about Krugman’s story, and that of most mainstream economists, is there’s not a single word about profits. Corporate profits are entirely missing from their story. Inflation is only caused by workers’ wages, not the surplus raked in by U.S. corporations. Which is pretty amazing, given the numbers.

A quick look at the chart at the top of the post shows what’s been going on in the U.S. economy. Workers’ wages (the red line in the chart, the hourly wages of production and nonsupervisory workers) rose during 2021 at an annual average rate of less than 5 percent (ranging from 2.8 percent in the second quarter to 6.4 percent in the final quarter).

And profits? Well, they’ve been growing at astounding rates, magnitudes more than wages. Corporate profits (the light green line) rose during 2021 at an average rate of 40 percent, and the profits of nonfinancial corporations (the dark green line) expanded by even more: 69 percent!

Hmmm. . .

The fact that profits are entirely missing from the mainstream story about inflation reveals a fundamental problem within mainstream economic theories. On one hand, in their macroeconomics, wages and not profits are always the culprit. That’s because they only have a labor market, and not a capital market (much less a profit rate or, for that matter, a rate of surplus-value), when they analyze fluctuations in prices and output. It’s as if corporate profits are only a residual—what is left over in the difference between wages and wage-driven prices. On the other hand, in their microeconomics, profits represent the return to capital, and thus a key component of commodity prices as well as the driver of economic growth.

Such “capital fetishism” means that profits as the return to a thing, capital, play an important role in the mainstream theory of value but then disappear entirely in the macroeconomic story about inflation.

It’s therefore a problem in the basic theories of mainstream economics. And it’s a problem when it comes to their economic policies: anything and everything must be done to keep workers’ wages in check, and (without ever mentioning them) to safeguard corporate profits.

The fact is, once we solve the mystery of the missing profits we can actually tackle the problem of inflation. But neither mainstream economists nor the leaders of corporate America are going to like what we come up with.

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*The Federal Reserve is suggesting that it can raise interest rates to get prices down “without causing a recession.” In fact, according to research from the investment bank Piper Sandler, the Fed raised rates to combat inflation nine different times during the past 60 years, and on eight of those occasions a recession occurred not long after.

James Sanborn, Adam Smith’s Spinning Top (1998)

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” The first five posts (herehereherehere, and here) will serve as the basis for chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today. The text of this post is for Chapter 2, Marxian Economics Versus Mainstream Economics (following on from the previous posts, herehereherehere, and here).

Classical Political Economy

Marxian economists have been quite critical of contemporary mainstream economics. As we saw in Chapter 1, and will continue to explore in the remainder of this book, Marxian economists have challenged the general approach as well as all of the major conclusions of both neoclassical and Keynesian economics.

But what about Marx, who wrote his critique of political economy, let’s remember, before neoclassical and Keynesian economics even existed?

Marx, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, trained his critical eye on the mainstream economic theory of his day. He read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, as well as the writings of other classical political economists, such as Thomas Robert Malthus, Jean-Baptiste Say, and John Stuart Mill.

Marx’s critique of political economy can rightly be seen as both an extension of and break from the work of those late-eighteenth-century and early-nineteen-century mainstream economists. So, in order to understand why and how Marx proceeded in the way he did, we need to have a basic understanding of classical political economy.

Before we begin, however, we have to recognize that Marx’s interpretation of the classical economists was very different from the way they are referred to within contemporary mainstream economics. Today, within non-Marxian economics, the classicals are reduced to a few summary ideas. They include the following: a labor theory of value (which mainstream economists reject, in favor of utility), the invisible hand (which, as it turns out, Smith mentioned only three times in his writings, once in the Wealth of Nations), and comparative advantage (but not the rest of Ricardo’s theory, especially his theory of conflict over the distribution of income).

We therefore need a good bit more in order to make sense of Marx’s critique of political economy.

Adam Smith

Let’s start with Adam Smith, the so-called father of modern economics. The author of, first, the Theory of Moral Sentiments and, then, the Wealth of Nations, Smith asserted that people have a natural “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” In other words, according to Smith, the ability and willingness to participate in markets were natural, and not social and historical, aspects of all humanity.

That’s not unlike contemporary mainstream economists’ insistence on presuming the existence of markets, and thus writing down supply and demand functions (or drawing them on a graph), without any further evidence or argumentation. They’re presumed to be natural.

Smith then proceeds by showing that the division of labor (such as with his most famous example, of the pin factory) has two effects: First, it leads to increases in productivity, and therefore an increase in production. Second, the extension of the division of labor within factories propels a division of labor within capitalism as a whole, as firms specialize in the production of some goods, which they can then trade with other producers in markets. In turn, the expansion of markets leads to more division of labor and higher productivity, thus increasing the wealth of nations.

Again, the parallel with contemporary mainstream economics is quite evident, which is recognized in the “classical” portion of the name for neoclassical economic theory. Using Gross Domestic Product as their measure of the wealth of nations, contemporary mainstream economists celebrate capitalism because higher productivity results in more output, which is then traded on markets. This is the basis of contemporary mainstream economists’ definition of development as an increase in GDP per capita, that is, more output per person in the population.

However, unlike contemporary mainstream economists, Smith analyzed the value of commodities in terms of the amount of labor it took to produce them. With increasing productivity, more goods and services could be produced and sold in markets, each containing less labor—and therefore available at lower prices to consumers. The nation’s wealth would therefore grow, especially as the number of workers grew.

Still, Smith worried about whether capitalist growth would persist in an uninterrupted fashion. The division of a nation’s production into “natural” rates of wages, profits, and rent to workers, capitalists, and landlords was not sufficient. What if, Smith asked, a large portion of capitalists’ profits was used to hire more “unproductive” labor, that is, the labor of household servants and others that did not contribute to increasing productivity? Purchasing labor involved in what we now call conspicuous consumption represented, for Smith, a slowing of the accumulation of additional capital. Therefore, it created a problem, an obstacle to future capitalist growth.

David Ricardo

David Ricardo picked up where Smith left off. He extended the celebration of capitalist markets to international trade. His argument was that if nations specialized in the production of commodities for which they had a relative advantage, and traded them for goods from other countries (his most famous example was British cloth and Portuguese wine), both countries would benefit. Their wealth would increase.*

That’s the only reason Ricardo’s work is cited by contemporary mainstream economists. However ironically, they ignore the fact that Ricardo made his argument based on the labor theory of value—just as they never mention Ricardo’s concern that conflicts over the distribution of income might slow capitalist growth.

In particular, Ricardo was worried that, as capitalism developed, the profits received by capitalists would be squeezed from two directions: an increase in workers’ wages and a rise in rent payments to landlords. Lower profits would mean less capital accumulation and slower growth—and, in the limit, capitalism would grind to a halt.

We can see how this might happen in the chart above. At a certain point (a level of population P, which is the pool of workers), total output (the red line) would be divided into workers’ wages, capitalists’ profits, and landlords’ rent).

It is easy to see that, at any point in time, if the wage rate paid to workers increased (which would mean an increase in the slope of the blue line), that would cut into profits (the vertical distance between the blue and green lines would decrease). That’s the major reason Ricardo supported free trade (and thus a repeal of the so-called Corn Laws): so that cheaper wheat could be imported from abroad, thus lessening the upward pressure on workers’ wage demands.

Even if the rate paid to workers remained the same over time (and thus the total amount of wages rose at a constant rate, with an increase in population), capitalists’ profits would be squeezed from the other direction, by an increase in the rents paid to the class of landlords (the vertical distance between the green and red lines). Basically, as agricultural production was moved to less and less fertile land, the rents on more productive land would rise, siphoning off a larger and larger portion of profits.

At a certain point (e.g., at a level of population P*), the entire output would be divided between workers’ wages and landlords’ rent, and nothing would be left in the form of capitalists’ profits. As a result, capitalists would be forced to stop investing and capitalist growth would cease.

Other Classicals

The Reverend Thomas Malthus was, if anything, more pessimistic than Ricardo. But he foresaw capitalism’s problems coming from the other direction, from the working masses. In his Essay on the Principle of Population, he argued that population would likely grow faster than the expansion in food production, especially in times of plenty. With such an increase in the supply of workers and a rise in the price of available food, workers’ real wages would inevitably fall and poverty would rise. The only solution was for capitalists and landlords to hire all the additional labor, and for workers’ wages to be restored to their “natural” level.

If Malthus focused on the up-and-down cycles of population and wages, and both Smith and Ricardo the potential limits to capitalist growth, the French classical economist Jean-Baptiste Say emphasized the inherent stability of capitalism. Why? Say’s argument was that the production of commodities causes incomes to be paid to suppliers of the capital, labor, and land used in producing these goods and services. And because the sale price of those commodities was the sum of the payments of wages, rents, and profit, the incomes generated during the production of commodities would be used to purchase all the commodities brought to market. Moreover, entrepreneurs were rewarded for correctly assessing the needs reflected in markets and the means to satisfy those needs. The result is what was later coined as Say’s Law: “supply creates its own demand.”

Finally, it was John Stuart Mill who added utilitarianism to classical political economy. Extending the work of Jeremy Bentham, especially the “greatest-happiness principle” (which holds that one must always act so as to produce the greatest aggregate happiness among all sentient beings), Mill argued that the greatest happiness and the least pain could be achieved on the basis of free markets, competition, and private property—with the proviso that everyone should be afforded an equal opportunity, however unequal the actual results might turn out to be. In particular, Mill defended the profits of capitalists as a just recompense for their savings, risk, and economic supervision.*

Marx’s Critique of Mainstream Economics

That, in a nutshell, is the mainstream economic theory Marx confronted while sitting in the British Museum in the middle of the nineteenth century. Marx both lauded the classical political economists for their efforts—especially Ricardo, who in his view “gave to classical political economy its final shape” (Critique of Political Economy)—and engaged in a “ruthless criticism” of their theory.

In this sense, Marx took the classical political economists quite seriously. Even as he broke from their work in a decisive manner, many of the themes of Marx’s critique of political economy stem directly from the issues the classicals attempted to tackle. That’s why the overview provided in previous sections of this chapter is so crucial to understanding Marxian economics.

Still, the question remains, how does Marx’s critique of the mainstream economics of his day transfer over to contemporary mainstream economists? As we will see, although neoclassical and Keynesian economists reject the labor theory of value and other crucial elements of classical political economy, both the basic assumptions and conclusions of their approach are so similar to those of the classicals as to make it a relatively short step from Marx’s critique of the mainstream economic theory of his day to that of our own.

However, before we look at that theoretical encounter, in the next chapter, we will see how Marx’s critical engagement with classical political economy emerged over the course of his writings before, in the mid-1860s, he sits down to write the three volumes of his most famous book, Capital.

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*Mill did defend various redistributive tax measures, in order to limit intergenerational inequalities that would otherwise constrain equality of opportunity. Moreover, he argued in a later edition of his Principles of Political Economy in favor of economic democracy: “the association of the labourers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers elected and removable by themselves” (Principles of Political Economy, with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy, IV.7.21).

The phrase, which was used in the early nineteenth century to describe the the spoils system of appointing government workers, accurately describes the American economy today.* And it’s pretty clear who the victor is, and it’s not the working-class.

Instead, a small group at the top have come out as the victor—and that’s been true for decades now.

How do we know?

Well, all we have to do is look at the growing gap between the amount produced by American workers and what they received in their wages. Gross Domestic Product (the green line in the chart above) grew by a factor of almost 16 from 1973 onward while workers’ wages increased by a bit more than 5 before the COVID Depression.

So, American workers only received back in the form of wages a small percentage of the increased amount they produced. The rest went to their employers.

The result has been an enormous rise in U.S. corporate profits (before tax, without inventory valuation and capital consumption adjustments)—particularly evident in the trendline fitted to the data in the chart above.

The employers, in turn, transferred a portion of those profits to the Chief Executive Officers of their corporations.

According to the latest report from the Economic Policy Institute, in 2019, a CEO at one of the top 350 firms in the United States was paid $21.3 million on average (using a “realized” measure of CEO pay that counts stock awards when vested and stock options when cashed in rather than when granted). The ratio of CEO-to-typical-worker compensation was therefore 320-to-1 (222.8-to-1 using a different, “granted” measure of CEO pay). That is up from 293-to-1 in 2018 and a gigantic increase from 61.4-to-1 in 1989 and, even more, 21.1-to-1 in 1965.

Exorbitant CEO pay is a major contributor to rising inequality that we could safely do away with. CEOs are getting more because of their power to set pay—and because so much of their pay (about three-fourths) is stock-related, not because they are increasing productivity or possess specific, high-demand skills. This escalation of CEO compensation, and of executive compensation more generally, has fueled the growth of top 1.0% and top 0.1% incomes, leaving less of the fruits of economic growth for ordinary workers and widening the gap between very high earners and the bottom 90%. The economy would suffer no harm if CEOs were paid less (or were taxed more).

An even large—and growing—distribution of the surplus that is the basis of corporate profits has taken the form of dividends, paid to owners of corporate equities. In 1965, dividends were about 26 (25.8) percent of corporate profits; by the beginning of this year they were almost 70 (69.2) percent.

And according to my calculations, the top 1 percent in the United States owns (as of 2014, the last year for which data are available) 62 percent of corporate equities, which has been climbing since the late 1970s. Meanwhile, the share of the entire bottom 90 percent has been falling, and is now only 11 percent.

So, it’s really only the small group at the top that is in a position to “share in the booty” by receiving a cut of corporate profits in the form of CEO pay and stock dividends. They’ve occupied the position of victor for decades now, and to them belong the economic spoils.**

Everyone else is forced to have the freedom to try to get by on their slowly rising wages—and to watch with both fascination and horror the ongoing spectacles in corporate boardrooms and the stock market.

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*”To the victor belong the spoils” is attributed to Senator William Learned Marcy of New York who, in 1832, defended Andrew Jackson, whose campaign against President John Quincy Adams was seen partly as a vendetta against Adams, and whose conduct and remarks when taking office seemed to justify the association of Jackson with the spoils system.

**Just yesterday, in the midst of the pandemic and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the U.S. stock market reached a new high (according to the Standard & Poor’s 500 index).

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