Posts Tagged ‘surplus’

The same day I wrote that capitalism was coming apart at the seams, indicated by the shocking disparity between the compensation of corporate CEOs and workers, the Business Roundtable published its new statement of purpose of a corporation.*  The 180 or so corporate executives who signed the statement declared that all their stakeholders, not just owners of equity shares, were important to their mission.

Many business pundits, such as Andrew Ross Sorkin, greeted the new statement as a sign that the era of shareholder democracy (what he refers to as “shareholder primacy”) had finally come to an end and that a “significant shift” in corporate responsibility to society would be ushered in. Readers, however, had their doubts, most of them echoing JDK’s response to Sorkin’s piece: “Talk is cheap.”

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The fact is, over the past three decades, net dividend payments to shareholders have soared—from $178 billion in 1989 to $1.3 trillion in 2019 (that’s an increase of 630 percent, for those keeping track).** And much of the responsibility is laid at the feet of mainstream economists like Milton Friedman (pdf), who famously declared that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits” and the only responsibility of corporate executives is to their employers, the shareholders—and corporate raiders such as Carl Icahn.

As I see it, the idea of shareholder democracy has merely served as a cover for any and all corporate decisions and strategies. When pushed to take on other responsibilities, or to make other decisions, the corporate defense has long been that it ran counter to the mission of maximizing profits or shareholder value.

In reality, corporations have never attempted to achieve just one objective or to maximize one value. One issue is that the usual objectives or values ascribed to corporate managers are ill-defined. There is neither singular meaning of profits (since, as they’re reported, they’re largely the result of a particular set of accounting conventions, defined over the fuzzy boundaries of the inside and outside of a corporate entity) nor a unique time frame (over what period are profits or dividends maximized—a week, quarter, year?).*** But the defense of such a corporate mission has served as a convenient excuse to resist pressures to make different decisions or adopt alternative strategies—such as increasing worker pay, improving working conditions, implementing environmentally sustainable practices, and so on.

My view, as I argued back in 2013, is that corporations have never done just one thing or followed a single rule. They do make profits (at least sometimes, depending on the definition and timeframe). But they also seek to grow their enterprises and destroy the competition and maintain good public relations and buy government officials and reward their CEOs and squeeze workers and lower costs and reward shareholders and implement new forms of automation and build factories that collapse and. . .well, you get the idea. In other words, they appropriate and distribute surplus-value in all kinds of ways depending on the particular conditions and struggles that take place over the shape and direction of their enterprises.

The problem inherent both in the new Business Roundtable statement of purpose and in the attempts by corporate critics to argue that corporations should take on additional social responsibilities is that corporations are already too central to the U.S. economy and society. They’re the main institution where the surplus is appropriated and then distributed—with all the consequent effects on the wider society. The private decisions of corporate entities, as decided by the boards of directors and implemented by the chief executives, are responsible for the Second Great Depression, the grotesque levels of economic inequality that have been growing for decades now, the global-warming crisis, and so much more. Why would anyone want to give corporations even more power or scope to decide how to solve those problems when they’re the root of the problem in the first place?

No, the only viable strategy is make corporations less important, to decenter the American economy and society from the decisions made by corporate directors and executives. That begins with fostering the growth of other types of firms (such as worker-owned cooperatives) and making sure that the workers employed by corporations play a significant role in corporations (including how much surplus there will be and how it will be utilized). That’s the best way of moving beyond the era of shareholder democracy to a real economic democracy.

Anything else is just cheap talk.

 

*I certainly don’t want to imply that the Business Roundtable was responding to my blog post. No, the fact that they felt it necessary to issue such a new statement of purpose is an indication that American corporations—and, with them, U.S. capitalism—have lost a great deal of legitimacy in recent years. As Farhad Manjoo [ht: ja] recently wrote,

A recession looms, and the nation’s C.E.O.s are growing fearful.

It isn’t the potential of downturn itself that has them alarmed — downturns come and downturns go, but whatever happens, chief executives, like cats, tend to land on their comfortably padded feet.

Instead, the cause of their fear appears to be something more fundamental. . .They’re worried that when the next recession breaks, revolution might, too. This could be the hour that the ship comes in: The coming recession might finally prompt the masses to sharpen their pitchforks and demand a reckoning.

**During that same period, average hourly earnings (for production and nonsupervisory workers) increased by only 140 percent—but corporate profits (after tax) rose by 570 percent.

***As I have long explained to students, that’s the myth that serves as the foundation of the neoclassical theory of the profit-maximizing firm: what exactly are corporate profits and over what time frame are they supposed to be maximized? The assumption of a profit-maximizing firm is equivalent to what one hears from many so-called radical economists, that “capitalists accumulate capital.” Again, no. Accumulating capital (that is, purchasing new elements of constant and variable capital) is only one of the many possible forms in which capitalists distribute the surplus-value they appropriate from their workers. Sometimes they accumulate capital, and other times they don’t. The presumption that they always seek to accumulate capital is the heroic story proffered by classical economists (so that, in their view, capitalist growth would take place), much as neoclassical economists today presume that capitalists maximize profits (so that, in their view, an efficient allocation of resources will result). Marxists presume neither that capitalists maximize profits nor that they always and everywhere accumulate capital.

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American capitalism is coming apart at the seams.

Truth be told, it’s been coming apart for decades now—and that trend has only continued during the recovery from the worst crash since the 1930s.

A good indicator of the shredding of the U.S. economic and social fabric is the difference in the level of compensation of Chief Executive Officers of major American corporations compared to that of the average worker. While they labor, workers create value, some of which they receive back in the form of compensation; the rest of what they produce is the surplus, which is appropriated by the boards of directors of the enterprises that hire the workers. The boards also hire CEOs, to supervise the production of the surplus, who in turn get a cut of the surplus. In other words, the executives share in the booty created by the workers they supervise. Thus, both groups—CEOs and workers—perform labor and are compensated for their work but the source and level of their compensation couldn’t be more different.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, in 2018, average compensation (including realized capital gains) of CEOs at the top 350 American firms was $17.2 million. And for workers? It was only $56 thousand. As a result, the ratio of CEO compensation to that of workers was an astounding 278.1 to 1! In 1978, that ratio stood at 29.7 to 1. The spectacular growth in the CEO-to-average-worker-compensation ratio reflects the fact that, over that same period, CEO compensation has risen 940.3 percent while that of workers has grown only 11.9 percent.

Just in the past nine years of the so-called recovery, CEO compensation far outpaced that of workers: 52.6 percent compared to only 12.7 percent.

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It should come as no surprise, then, that over the 1978-2018 period, the labor share of national income has dropped precipitously, by 8.7 percent (falling 2.1 percent just since 2009). Corporate CEOs have thus done their job—extracting more surplus from workers—and been rewarded handsomely for their efforts.

And Americans are quite aware of how unfair the U.S. corporate economy has become.

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According to a 2016 survey conducted by David F. LarckerNicholas E. Donatiello, and Brian Tayan for the Stanford Rock Center for Corporate Governance, 74 percent of Americans believe that CEOs are not paid the correct amount relative to the average worker; only 16 percent believe that they are. And 70 percent believe that CEO compensation in the United States is a problem; only 18 percent think it’s not. 

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And that’s even when Americans grossly underestimate the amount of the surplus corporate CEOs manage to capture. The typical American believes a CEO earns $1 million in pay (with an average of $9.3 million), whereas median reported compensation for the CEOs of these companies was approximately $10.3 million (with an average of $12.2 million).

In other words, CEO compensation figures are much higher than the public is aware of, and for many Americans it is simply incomprehensible that anyone can earn that much money.

Moreover, Americans are not convinced corporate CEOs should be able to capture as much of the surplus as they do. For example, according to the same survey, when respondents are given a hypothetical situation in which a company’s value increases by $100 million over the course of a year, the median respondent believes that the CEO should receive only 0.5 percent ($500,000) as compensation. In other words, as Donatiello put it, “Either the public is not sold on the idea that CEOs should share in value creation to the extent that they do. Or they do not believe that CEOs play an important role in value creation.”

Clearly, the high level of exploitation—and the subsequent distribution of a large portion of the resulting surplus to CEOs—is the source of the rending of the U.S. economic and social fabric. Unless corporations are fundamentally transformed, so that workers and society as a whole have a say in the size and distribution of the surplus, American capitalism will continue to come apart at the seams.

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Special mention

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Mainstream economists continue to insist that workers benefit from economic growth, because wages rise with productivity.

Here’s the argument as explained by Donald J. Boudreaux and Liya Palagashvili:

Firms cannot afford a misalignment of their workers’ pay and productivity increases—the employees will move to other firms eager to hire these now more productive workers. Higher economy-wide productivity, after all, means that workers add more to the bottom lines of employers throughout the economy. To secure the services of these more-productive workers, firms bid up worker pay. This competition for labor services is what links pay to productivity.

Except, of course, the link between wages and productivity has been severed for decades now, going back to the late-1970s. Since then, as the folks at the Economic Policy Institute have shown, productivity has increased by 70.3 percent but average worker’s wages have risen by only 11.1 percent.

So, no, there is no necessary or automatic link between productivity and wages within the U.S. economy. There may have been such a relationship after World War II, during the so-called Golden Age of American capitalism, but not in recent decades.*

A natural question that arises is just where did the excess productivity—the extra surplus U.S. employers appropriated from their workers—go? A significant proportion, as I showed last year, went to higher corporate profits. Another large portion went to those at the very top of the wage distribution.

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As is clear in the chart above, the top 1 percent of earners saw cumulative gains in annual wages of 157.3 percent between 1979 and 2017—far in excess of economy-wide productivity growth and nearly four times faster than average wage growth (40.1 percent). Over the same period, top 0.1 percent earnings grew 343.2 percent, with the latest spike reflecting the sharp increase in executive compensation.

In other words, corporate executives—on both Main Street and Wall Street—have been able to share in the extra booty captured from American workers, who were forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work for wages that have barely increased in recent decades.

That combination of stagnant wages for most workers and the ability of those at the top to capture a large portion of the extra surplus is therefore at the root of increasing inequality in the United States.

 

*Even then, as I explained back in 2017:

The fact is, the supposed Golden Age of American capitalism was based on a set of institutions that allowed the boards of directors of large corporations to appropriate a growing surplus and to distribute it as they wished. At first, during the immediate postwar period, that meant growing incomes for those in the bottom 90 percent. But, even then, the mechanisms for distributing income remained in the hands of a very small group at the top. And they had both the interest and the means to stop the growth of wages, get even more surplus (from U.S. workers and, increasingly, workers around the globe), and distribute a greater share of that surplus to a tiny group at the very top of the distribution of income.

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How else to put it? The levels of economic inequality in the United States are obscene.

According to the latest data from the World Inequality Database, the share of pre-tax income captured by the top 1 percent of Americans is an astounding 20.1 percent, while the bottom 50 percent are forced to make due with only 12.6 percent. And the distribution of wealth is even more unequal: the top 1 percent own 37.2 percent but the bottom 50 percent of Americans hold no net wealth at all.

Even Donald Trump’s Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell has warned that income inequality is the nation’s biggest economic challenge in the coming decade.

Powell and many others recognize that, if present trends continue—with corporate profits growing and the Trump administration in power—economic inequality is only going to get worse.

It’s no wonder, then, that Dani Rodrick argues that the Democratic Party will face a critical test in the next U.S. presidential election:

Will it remain the party of merely adding sweeteners to an unjust economic system? Or does it have the courage to address unfair inequality by attacking it at its roots?

Clearly, Rodrick reflecting on the poor showing of Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election, who promised to continue the policies of economic recovery under Barack Obama, and the fact that most of the proposals currently on the table are aimed at raising taxes on the rich. They don’t really get at the roots of the grotesque levels of inequality the U.S. economy has been generating.

The problem is, most of what Rodrick offers as an alternative agenda for “the Left” also fails that test. His plan for “inclusive prosperity” is confined to “productive re-integration of the domestic economy” (basically, encouraging large corporations to invest in their local communities), directing technological change (to help less-skilled workers), rebalancing labor markets (for example, by promoting unionization and raising minimum wages), regulating the financial sector (with higher capital requirements and tighter scrutiny), and electoral reform (such as more stringent campaign financial rules).

Now, there aren’t many on the Left—at least progressive thinkers and activists I talk to or whose work I read—who would be opposed to such changes. They would, indeed, improve the condition of the working-class and make it somewhat easier for the vast majority of Americans to make their voices heard.

But, by the same token, the kinds of policies Rodrick is putting forward do not meet his own test of attacking the problem of inequality “at its roots.”

The fact is, inequality begins where the surplus is produced and appropriated—in the factories, offices, and warehouses where most Americans work. Workers produce much more value than they receive in the form of wages and salaries, and it’s that surplus that is appropriated by their corporate employers to do with it what they will. Some of it is invested and the rest is distributed for other purposes—stock buybacks, mergers and acquisitions, salaries for corporate executives, and so on—which only serve to make the existing distribution of income and wealth even more unequal.

In other words, it’s that control over the surplus by a small minority of Americans that is the root, the condition or source, of the unfair inequality that characterizes the United States today. And there’s nothing in Rodrick’s set of policies that seeks to fundamentally alter or solve that particular problem.

Perhaps a month ago, when Rodrick first published his piece, he could claim to have been out front in the discussion—and perhaps he still is for mainstream liberals. But already the terms of debate, for the Left, have bypassed him and moved on. Now, politicians, activists, and journalists are asking new questions and posing new solutions—under the rubric of socialism.*

People in the United States often ask whether or not we should keep the socialist label. My answer is an unequivocal “yes,” for two reasons: one is that it ties contemporary discussions and debates to a long historical tradition of criticizing existing conditions and proposing alternatives; second, socialism is based on a recognition that the problems workers face are based on and stem from an “unjust economic system,” and “merely adding sweeteners” doesn’t represent a solution.

The current discussion of socialism is only in its infancy, and it’s impossible to tell at this point where it will end up. But already, in putting issues like a Green New Deal and economic democracy on the table, it is much close to attacking the roots of unfair inequality in the United States than anything mainstream Democrats or Dani Rodrick have to offer.

 

*Even “On Point,” a radio program produced by WBUR in Boston and broadcast every weekday on NPR stations around the United States, recently hosted an episode on socialism.

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No matter how we measure it, most Americans are falling further and further behind the tiny group at the top.

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That’s not at all surprising. Whether we compare the growing gap between average wages and Gross Domestic Product per capita (as in the chart on the left) or real median household income and real Gross Domestic Product per capita (as in the chart on the right), it’s clear the average American has been losing out. A growing proportion of what workers produce hasn’t been going to them but to the richest households for decades now.

That does not mean, contra Robert Samuelson, that “the incomes of most Americans have stagnated for decades.” That’s a canard. No one makes that argument.

No, the real issue is that American workers have been producing more and more but getting only a tiny share of that increase. As I explained last year,

That’s what mainstream economists can’t or won’t understand: that workers may be worse off even as their wages and incomes rise. That problem flies in the face of every attempt to celebrate the existing order by claiming “just deserts.”

It’s what is known as relative immiseration. And it simply can’t be disputed by the alternative statistics invoked by Samuelson or Stephen J. Rose (pdf).

The exact numbers concerning the distribution of income in the United States depend, of course, on a whole host of assumptions and methodological choices, mostly involving what counts as “income.” The more categories that are included in income—starting with the traditional series (wages and salaries, dividends, interest, and rent) before and after taxes, and then including payments from government programs (such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the earned-income tax credit), and going so far as to add employer contributions for health insurance and 401(k) retirement accounts, the employer share of the Federal Insurance Contributions Act, government noncash benefits (e.g., the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicare, Medicaid, and housing vouchers), housing services (homeowners paying rent to themselves) and government services (e.g., defense, education, legal system, and administration)—the less measured inequality turns out to be.

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In fact, as Rose demonstrates, most of the available studies show growing inequality in the United States, with a high and rising share of income captured by the top 1 percent.** The only real outlier is by Auten and Splinter, who merely demonstrate that it is possible for mainstream economists to make growing inequality virtually disappear with enough “massaging” of the underlying numbers.***

In the end, Samuelson himself is forced to admit,

None of this means we should stop debating inequality. Who gets what, and why, are inevitable subjects for examination in a rich democratic society. By contrast with many advanced societies, income and wealth are indisputably more concentrated in the United States.

And the problem of growing inequality is only going to get worse as we move forward, especially with ongoing automation. As David Autor explains,

employment is growing steadily, and its growth in terms of number of jobs has not been discernibly dented by technological progress. But the sum of wage payments to workers is growing more slowly than economic value-added, so labor’s share of the pie of net earnings is falling. This doesn’t mean that wages are falling. It means that they are not growing in lock step with value-added.

That’s exactly right. Workers’ wages and middle-class incomes may continue to rise in absolute terms but their relative standing with respect to the tiny group at the top—those who are in the position of capturing the surplus—will likely worsen.

Measure by measure, the economic and social landscape is being fractured and American workers are being left behind.

 

*So that I avoid the problem I encountered when I presented my “Merchant of Venice” paper, this post is not about Shakespeare’s play.

**The main studies include Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty (pdf), Piketty, Saez and Gabriel Zucman (pdf), Gerald Auten and David Splinter (pdf), and the Congressional Budget Office. As I showed in 2016, even Rose, for all the faults in his own study, found

an enormous increase in inequality between 1979 and 2014: combined, the share of income going to the rich and upper middle-class more than doubled, from 30 to 63.1 percent, while the amount of income going to everyone else—middle-class, lower middle-class, and poor—fell precipitously, to less than 40 percent.

***Auten and Splinter arrive at such a misleading result through two statistical maneuvers: allocating underreported income (primarily business income) according to IRS audit data and retirement income. Thus, they conclude, “Our results suggest an alternative narrative about top income shares: changes in the top one percent income shares over the last half century are likely to have been relatively modest.”

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Teaching critical literacy.

That’s what professors do in the classroom. We teach students languages in order to make some sense of the world around them. How to view a film or read a novel. How to think about economics, politics, and culture. How to understand cell biology or the evolution of the universe.

And, of course, how to think critically about those languages—both their conditions and their consequences.

I’ve been thinking about the task of teaching critical literacy as I prepare the syllabi and lectures for my final semester at the University of Notre Dame.

Lately, I’ve been struck by the way mainstream economics is usually taught as a choice between markets and policy. Whenever a problem comes up—say, inequality or climate change—one group of mainstream economists offers the market as a solution, while the other group suggests that markets aren’t enough and need to be supplemented by government policies. Thus, for example, conservative, market-oriented economists teach students that, with free markets, everybody gets what they deserve (so inequality isn’t really a problem) and greenhouse gas emissions will decline over time (by imposing a tax on the burning of carbon-based fuels). Liberal economists generally argue that market outcomes are inadequate and require additional policies—for example, minimum-wage laws (to lower inequality) and stringent regulations on carbon emissions (because allowing the market to work through carbon taxes, or even cap-and-trade schemes, won’t achieve the necessary reductions to avoid global warming).*

That’s the way mainstream economists frame the issues for students—and, for that matter, for the general public. Markets or policies. Either rely on markets or implement new policies. Once someone learns the language, they see the world in a particular way, and they’re permitted to participate in the debate on those terms.

The problem is, something crucial is being left out of those languages, and thus the economic and political debate: institutions. The existing set of institutions are taken as given. Therefore, the possibility of changing existing institutions or creating new institutions to solve economic and social problems is simply taken off the table.

Among those institutions, perhaps the key one is the corporation. The presumption within mainstream economics is that privately owned, publicly traded corporations are simply there, allowed to operate freely within markets or nudged in a better direction by government policies. What mainstream economists never encourage students (or, again the general public) to consider is the possibility that institutions—especially the corporation—might be modified or radically transformed to create the foundation for a different kind of economy.

Consider how strange that is. Corporations are the central institution when it comes to the distribution of income and therefore the obscene, and still-growing, levels of inequality in the U.S. and world economies. It’s how most workers are paid (because that’s where jobs are available) and where the surplus is first appropriated (by the boards of directors) and then distributed (to shareholders and others). And as workers’ wages stagnate, and the surplus grows, economic inequality becomes worse and worse.

The same is true with climate change. The major institution involved in producing and using fossil fuels—and therefore creating the conditions for global warming—is the corporation. Especially gigantic multinational corporations. Some make profits by extracting fossil fuels; others use those fuels to produce commodities and to transport them around the world. They are the basis of the fossil-fuel-intensive Capitalocene.

Within the language of mainstream economists, the corporation is always-already there. They may allow for different kinds of markets and different kinds of policies but never for an alternative to the institution of the corporation —whether a different kind of corporation or a non-corporate way of organizing economic and social life.

If the goal of teaching economic is critical literacy, then we have to teach students the multiple languages of economics—including the possibilities that are foreclosed by some languages and opened up by other languages. One of our tasks, then, is to look beyond the language of markets and policy and to expose students to a language of changing institutions.

Now that I begin to look back on my decades of teaching economics, I guess that’s what I’ve been doing the entire time, exploring and promoting critical literacy. I’ve always taken as one of my responsibilities the teaching of the language of mainstream economists. But I haven’t stopped there. I’ve also always endeavored to expose students to other languages, other ways of making sense of the world around them.

Maybe, as a result, some of them have left knowing that it’s not just a question of markets or policy. Economic institutions are important, too.

Addendum

To complicate matters a bit further, the three elements I’ve focused on in this blog post—markets, policy, and institutions—are not mutually exclusive. Thus, for example, at least some conservative mainstream economists do understand that properly functioning markets do presume certain institutions (such as the rule of law and the protection of private property) and policies (especially not regulating markets), while liberals often advocate policies that allow markets to operate with better outcomes (I’m thinking, in particular, of antitrust legislation) and institutions to be safeguarded (especially when they might be threatened by grotesque levels of inequality and the effects of climate change). As for institutions, I can well imagine noncorporate enterprises—for example, worker cooperatives—operating within markets and relying on government policy. However, such enterprises imply the existence of markets and policies that differ markedly from those that prevail today, which are taken as given and immutable by mainstream economists.

 

*Dani Rodrik summarizes the terms of the debate well in a recent column: when a local factory closes because a firm has decided to outsource production,

Economists’ usual answer is to call for “greater labor market flexibility”: workers should simply leave depressed areas and seek jobs elsewhere. . .

Alternatively, economists might recommend compensating the losers from economic change, through social transfers and other benefits.

Once again, it’s a question of markets (in this case, the labor market) and policy (more generous social transfers to the “losers”).