Posts Tagged ‘surplus’

I don’t have strong views about the idea of “platform capitalism,” the concept presented and elaborated in a recent book by Nick Srnicek to make sense of the business model of such companies as Google, Amazon, and Uber. I don’t feel I have a dog in that hunt.

What I do like is Srnicek’s critique of other designations—such as tech companies, sharing, and the gig economy—and his focus on the idea that these are, after all, capitalist firms operating in a capitalist economy. Their raison d’être is to make a profit by centralizing and monopolizing access to data and selling data (or services based on those data) to other firms.

In fact, the notion of “platform capitalism” might be extended to other kinds of enterprises. I’m thinking, for example, of sports franchises and universities. They also operate as platforms inasmuch as they generate profits across a range of activities. Nominally, they produce and sell a commodity (e.g., a football match and higher education)—but that only serves as a pretext for generating profits in other activities: in the case of sports franchises, television revenues, shirts and other memorabilia, food and drink concessions, and so on; similarly, in the case of higher education, on-line courses, research-based fees and patents, food and lodging for students and visitors, branded clothing, and of course collegiate sports spectacles. In both cases, sports franchises and universities operate as diverse, profit-making platforms.

So, in my view, the idea of “platform capitalism” might be a useful way of thinking about at least some forms of capitalism that exist today.

What I find odd, though, is some of the commentary on Srnicek’s work. Consider, for example, Daniel Little’s posing of the questions generated by the emergence of “platform capitalism”:

what after all is the source of value and wealth? And who has a valid claim on a share? What principles of justice should govern the distribution of the wealth of society? The labor theory of value had an answer to the question, but it is an answer that didn’t have a lot of validity in 1850 and has none today.

What Little seems not to understand is that the profits of the enterprises operating under the rubric of “platform capitalism” are still based on the surplus labor of workers who produce the commodities that are being sold. Uber, for example, manages to generate its profits by capturing the surplus of its drivers. It doesn’t own the vehicles and doesn’t directly employ the drivers (with all the associated costs savings) but, since it owns the platform that connects drivers to passengers, it secures a “right” to the surplus created by the drivers and paid for by the passengers. The other kinds of platforms analyzed by Srnicek have different ways of generating profits: by selling advertising based on information collected about users (e.g., Facebook and Google), by renting servers used to process data (e.g., Amazon), and so on. But in all these cases, workers are doing the job of writing and modifying software, collecting and processing data, building and maintaining servers, and supplying the ultimate services to other enterprises or final consumers who purchase the commodities. And the members of the boards of directors of platform capitalist enterprises are the ones who ultimately appropriate the surplus.

Capitalism has, of course, changed since the mid-nineteenth century. The technologies, the modes of employment of workers, the ways commodities are marketed and the role users play, the measuring and processing of data—all of those features of the capitalist mode of production have changed radically since industrial capitalism first emerged. But the basic logic—of capitalists and workers, of creating, appropriating, and distributing surplus labor in the form of surplus-value—is the same for capitalist enterprises today just as it was in 1850.

That’s why the Marxian critique of political economy, modified and updated for the twenty-first century, continues to be able to explain the “source of value and wealth”—including and perhaps especially “the soaring inequalities of income and wealth that capitalism has produced” in recent decades.

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First, it was conspicuous consumption. Then, it was conspicuous philanthropy. Now, apparently, it’s conspicuous productivity.

According to Ben Tarnoff,

the acquisition of insanely expensive commodities isn’t the only way that modern elites project power. More recently, another form of status display has emerged. In the new Gilded Age, identifying oneself as a member of the ruling class doesn’t just require conspicuous consumption. It requires conspicuous production.

If conspicuous consumption involves the worship of luxury, conspicuous production involves the worship of labor. It isn’t about how much you spend. It’s about how hard you work.

And that makes a lot of sense, for at least two reasons. First, CEO salaries in the United States continue to be much higher than average workers’ pay—276 times as much in 2015. CEOs need to publicize the long hours they work in order to attempt to justify the large gap between what they take home and what they pay their workers. As Tarnoff explains, “In an era of extreme inequality, elites need to demonstrate to themselves and others that they deserve to own orders of magnitude more wealth than everyone else.”

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The problem, of course, is many American workers are working long hours these days. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015, employed persons ages 25 to 54, who lived in households with children under 18, spent an average of 8.8 hours working or in work-related activities and the rest sleeping (7.8 hours), doing leisure and sports activities (2.6 hours), and caring for others, including children (1.2 hours ).

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And, on a weekly basis (taking into account public holidays, annual leaves, and so on), U.S. workers put in almost 25 percent more hours—or about an hour more per workday—than Europeans.

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The other reason why conspicuous productivity matters is because, in comparison to the First Gilded Age (when Thorstein Veblen first invented the term conspicuous consumption), a larger share of the surplus captured by the top 1 percent takes the form of labor income during the Second Gilded Age. They get—and deserve—that large and growing share because they work long hours.

The problem, of course, as I showed the other day, that composition of income has changed since 2000. Since then, the capital share of their income has bounced back. Thus, the “working rich” of the late-twentieth century are increasingly living off their capital income, or are in the process of being replaced by their offspring who are living off their inheritances.

This was my conclusion:

It looks then as if those at the top have either turned into or been replaced by rentiers, thus joining the existing owners of capital at the very top—thereby mirroring, after a short interruption, the structure of inequality last seen during the first Gilded Age.

That’s perhaps why conspicuous productivity was invented. Increasingly, those at the top are able to capture a large share of the surplus not because they do, but because they own. But if they can hide that by boasting about the long hours they work, they can attempt to defend their class power.

Or so they hope. . .

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Skellington is right: in my post on Tuesday, I did not separate out people at the very top from the rest of those at the top. That’s because, in the data I presented, those in the top 0.1 percent were included in the top 1 percent.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the same kind of breakdown in the composition of incomes as I used in those charts. What I do have are data on the shares of income and wealth for the top 0.1 percent versus the remainder of the top 1 percent (so, top 1 percent to but not including the top 0. 1 percent).

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Clearly, income within the top 1 percent is unequally distributed—and has gotten more unequal over time. While the top 0.1 percent (approximately 326.5 thousand individuals) captured about 9.3 of pre-tax income in 2014 (up from 3.9 percent in 1979), the remainder of the top 1 percent (and thus about 2.9 million individuals) took home about 10.9 percent of pre-tax income in 2014 (up from 7.3 percent in 1979). Over time (from 1979 to 2014), the top 0.1 percent has increased its share of the income going to the top 1 percent from a bit more than a third (35 percent) to almost half (46 percent).

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The distribution of wealth within the top 1 percent is even more unequally distributed than the distribution of income—and it, too, has become more unequal over time. While the top 0.1 percent owned about 19.1 percent of total household wealth in 2014 (up from 7.2 percent in 1979), the remainder of the top 1 percent owned about 18. 2 percent of household wealth in 2014 (up from 15.2 percent in 1979). Thus, over time, the top 0.1 percent has increased its share of household wealth owned by the top 1 percent from about one third (32 percent) to over half (51.3 percent).

The conclusions, then, are straightforward: For decades now, those at the top have managed to pull away—in terms of both income and wealth—from everyone else in the United States. And, by the same token, those at the very top have been distancing themselves from everyone else at the top.

No matter how much they do battle over their respective shares, the one thing that ties together those at the top and those at the very top is that their income and accumulated wealth derive from the surplus created by the bottom 90 percent.

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One of the arguments I made in my piece on “Class and Trumponomics” (serialized on this blog—here, here, here, and here—and recently published as a single article in the Real-World Economics Review [pdf]) is that, in the United States, the class dynamic underlying the growing gap between the top 1 percent and everyone else was the much-less-remarked-upon divergence in the capital and wage shares of national income. Thus, I concluded, “the so-called recovery, just like the thirty or so years before it, has meant a revival of the share of income going to capital, while the wage share has continued to decline.”

Well, as it turns out, that conclusion is more general, characterizing not just the United States but much of global capitalism.

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We know that—not just in the United States, but in a wide variety of national economics—the share of income going to the top 1 percent has been rising for decades now.

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Thanks to the work of Peter Chen, Loukas Karabarbounis, and Brent Neiman (and the full paper [pdf]), we also know that corporate profits (across some 60 countries) have also been rising.

We document a pervasive shift in the composition of saving away from the household sector and toward the corporate sector. Global corporate saving has risen from below 10 percent of global GDP around 1980 to nearly 15 percent in the 2010s. This increase took place in most industries and in the large majority of countries, including all of the 10 largest economies.

According to their analysis, the rise of corporate saving mirrors an increase in undistributed corporate profits, corresponding to a decline in the labor share for the global economy.

Moreover, the increase in corporate saving exceeded that in corporate investment, which implies that the corporate sector improved its net lending position. Just as I concluded in the case of the United States, the improved net lending position of corporations is associated with an accumulation of cash, repayment of debt, and increasing equity buybacks net of issuance.

If you put the two trends together—increased individual income inequality and increased corporate savings—what we’re witnessing then is increasing private control over the social surplus. Wealthy individuals and large corporations are able to capture and decide on their own what to do with the surplus, with all the social ramifications associated with their decisions to invest where and when they want—or not to invest, and thus to accumulate cash, repay debt, and repurchase their own equity shares.

And proposals to decrease tax rates for wealthy individuals and corporations will only increase that private control.

Why is it anyone would want to save such an economic system?

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Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin may not be worried. Nor, it seems, are other members of the economic and political elite. But the rest of us are—or we should be.

As regular readers of this blog know (cf. all these posts), the robots are here and they’re rapidly replacing workers, thus leading to less employment, downward pressure on wages, and even more inequality.

The latest evidence comes from the work of Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo, who argue, using a model in which robots compete against human labor in the production of different tasks, that in the United States robots have reduced both employment and wages during recent decades (from 1993 to 2007). That conclusion holds even accounting for the fact that some areas of the economy may grow (thus increasing employment for some workers) when the use of robots raises productivity and reduces costs in other industries.

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Even though U.S. employers have been introducing industrial robots at a pace that is less than in Europe, their use in American workplaces has in fact grown (between 1993 and 2007, the stock of robots in the United States increased fourfold, amounting to one new industrial robot for every thousand workers). And, once the direct and indirect effects are estimated, robots are responsible for up to 670,000 lost manufacturing jobs. And that number will rise, because industrial robots are expected to quadruple by 2025.

Actually, the effects have likely been even more dramatic, because Acemoglu and Restrepo take into account only three forces shaping the labor market: the displacement effect (because robots displace workers and reduce the demand for labor), the price-productivity effect (as automation lowers the costs of production in an industry, that industry expands), and the scale-productivity effect (the reduction of costs results in an expansion of total output).

What they’re missing is the effect on the value of labor power. As I explained last year, when productivity increases lower the prices of commodities workers consume, the value capitalists need to pay to get access to workers’ ability to work also goes down. As a result, even if workers’ real wages go up, the rate of exploitation can rise. Workers spend less of the day working for themselves and more for their employers. Capitalists, in other words, are able to extract more relative surplus-value.

And more surplus-value means more income for all those who share in the booty: CEOs, members of the 1 percent, and so on.

That’s why the increasing use of industrial robots, which under other circumstances we might actually celebrate, within existing economic institutions represents a disaster—not for their employers (who, like Mnuchin, are not particularly worried), but for all the workers who have been or are likely to be displaced and even those who manage to hang onto their jobs.

Workers are the ones who are going to continue to suffer from the “large and robust negative effects of robots”—unless and until they have a say in how robots and the resulting surplus are utilized.

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Clearly, 2016 was a good year for CEOs. They’re on track to set a post-recession record for capturing their portion of the surplus.

According to a new Wall Street Journal analysis, median pay for the chief executives of 104 of the biggest American companies rose 6.8 percent for fiscal 2016—to $11.5 million. At the very top was Thomas Rutledge, CEO of Charter Communications, who took home $98.5 million last year. (Here’s a link to the compensation of the other CEOs in the study.)

By way of comparison (using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics), average wages for production and nonsupervisory workers rose 2.5 percent, to $21.86. And their annual pay rose by the same percentage, to $36,725.

If you’re keeping track, that means the ratio of average CEO to average worker pay in 2016 was 299.5!

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Both Peter Temin and I are concerned about the vanishing middle-class and the desperate plight of most American workers. We even use similar statistics, such as the growing gap between productivity and workers’ wages and the share of income captured by the top 1 percent.

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And, as it turns out, both of us have invoked Arthur Lewis’s “dual economy” model to make sense of that growing gap. However, we present very different interpretations of the Lewis model and how it might help to shed light on what is wrong in the U.S. economy—with, of course, radically different policy implications.

It is ironic that both Temin and I have turned to the Lewis model, which was originally intended to make sense of “dual economies” in the Third World, in which peasant workers trapped by “disguised unemployment” and receiving a “subsistence” wage (equal to the average product of labor) in the “backward,” noncapitalist rural/agricultural sector could be induced via a higher “industrial” wage rate (equal to the marginal product of labor) to move to the “modern,” capitalist urban/manufacturing sector, which would absorb them as long as capital accumulation increased the demand for labor.

That’s clearly not what we’re talking about today, certainly not in the United States and other advanced economies where agriculture employs a tiny fraction of the work force—and where much of agriculture, like the manufacturing and service sectors, is organized along capitalist lines. But Lewis, like Adam Smith before him, did worry about the parasitical role of the landlord class and the way it might serve, via increasing rents, to drag down the rest of the economy—much as today we refer to finance and the above-normal profits captured by oligopolies.

So, our returning to Lewis may not be so far-fetched. But there the similarity ends.

Temin (in a 2015 paper, before his current book was published) divided the economy into two sectors: a high-wage finance, technology, and electronics sector, which includes about thirty percent of the population, and a low-wage sector, which contains the other seventy percent. In his view, the only link between the two sectors is education, which “provides a possible path that the children of low-wage workers can take to move into the FTE sector.”

The reinterpretation of the Lewis model I presented back in 2014 is quite different:

What I have in mind is redefining the subsistence wage as the federally mandated minimum wage, which regulates compensation to workers in the so-called service sector (especially retail and food services). That low wage-rate serves a couple of different functions: it’s a condition of high profitability in the service sector while keeping service-sector prices low, thereby cheapening both the value of labor power (for all workers who rely on the consumption of those goods and services) and making it possible for those at the top of the distribution of income to engage in conspicuous consumption (in the restaurants where they dine as well as in their homes). In turn, the higher average wage-rate of nonsupervisory workers is regulated in part by the minimum wage and in part by the Reserve Army of unemployed and underemployed workers. The threat to currently employed workers is that they might find themselves unemployed, underemployed, or working at a minimum-wage job.

In addition, the profits captured from both groups of workers are distributed to a wide variety of other activities, not just capital accumulation as presumed by Lewis. These include high CEO salaries, stock buybacks, idle cash, and financial-sector profits (with a declining share going to taxes). And, if the remaining portion that does flow into capital accumulation takes the form of labor-saving investments, we can have an economic recovery based on private investment and production with high unemployment, stagnant wages, and rising corporate profits.

For Temin, the goal of economic policy is to reduce the barriers (conditioned and created by an increasingly segregated educational system) so that low-wage workers can adopt to the forces of technological change and globalization, which can eventually “reunify the American economy.”

My view is radically different: the “normal” operation of the contemporary version of the dual economy is precisely what is keeping workers’ wages low and profits high across the U.S. economy. The problem does not stem from the high educational barrier between the two sectors, as Temin would have it, but from the control exercised by the small group that appropriates and distributes the surplus within both sectors.

And the only way to solve that problem is by eliminating the barriers that prevent workers as a class—both black and white, in finance, technology, and electronics as well as retail and food services, regardless of educational level—from participating in the appropriation and distribution of the surplus they create.