Posts Tagged ‘value’

General views of Seattle-based grafitti artists Jonathan Matas and Zach Rockstad's mural called "Up and Down" depicting Karl Marx and Adam Smith located on Mott Street just north of Houston Street in

Mainstream economists refer to it as price theory, everyone else value theory. But whatever it’s called, it’s at the center of economists’ differing explanations of what happens in (and alongside) markets.

As I see it, price/value theory serves as the framework to explain a wide range of phenomena, from how and for how much commodities are exchanged in markets through the determinants of the distribution of incomes to the outcomes—for the economy and society as a whole—of the allocation of resources and commodities through markets.

And each price/value theory has a utopian dimension. It’s not just an accounting for and an explanation of the conditions and consequences of commodity exchange; it’s also a way of thinking about the fairness and justice of markets. It therefore informs (and is informed by) a utopian horizon within and beyond markets.

Let me explain. Mainstream economists today generally rely on a price theory that has been produced, disseminated, and revised by neoclassical economists in a tradition that dates from the late-nineteenth century. Students know it as what they learn in the typical microeconomics course, the rest of us by the celebration of free markets in mainstream theory and policy.*

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The starting point of neoclassical value theory is that commodities exchange on markets at a price (p*) that is determined by supply and demand.** But that’s only the beginning. According to neoclassical economists, supply and demand are ultimately determined by human nature—a combination of tastes and preferences (utility), know-how (technology), and resources (factor endowments)—which are taken as given or exogenous.

And that leads to one of the major conclusions of neoclassical theory: the prices of goods and services, as well as the distribution of income, are ultimately determined by—and therefore reflect—human nature. That’s important because, if for whatever reason you don’t like the existing set of prices of commodities or the distribution of income, you face the formidable task of changing human nature.

Other significant conclusions also follow from neoclassical price theory, including:

  • Everyone gets what they pay for (since price is equal to the ratio of marginal utilities).
  • Everyone is equal (since, via the invisible hand, everyone’s marginal rate of substitution is equal to that of everyone else).
  • Everyone benefits from markets (since utility-maximation and profit-maximization lead to Pareto efficiency, i.e., a situation in which no one can be made better off without making someone worse off).

That’s an extraordinary set of conclusions—about commodities, markets, and capitalism—which is why, as I explain to my students, so much theoretical work has to be done to go from the initial assumptions to the final results.

That set of conclusions is the basis of the utopianism of neoclassical price theory.  According to neoclassical economists, the capitalist distribution of income is fundamentally fair. If every factor of production (e.g., capital and labor) is remunerated according to its marginal contribution to production, and each individual sells to firms the amount of each factor they desire (because of utility-maximization), the resulting distribution represents “just deserts.” It’s fair on an individual level and it represents justice for society as a whole. Let free markets operate, without any external intervention (e.g., by the state), and the result will be both fair and just.

It’s that powerful conclusion that serves as the starting point for value theory, the critique of the core of mainstream economics—with, of course, very different results.

Take the case of Marxian value theory. Marxian economists accept the notions of fairness and justice, a standard upheld by mainstream economists, and then shows that commodities and markets can’t but fail to achieve those goals. They do this, first, by showing that every commodity has two numbers attached to it—exchange-value and value—not just the one—price—and showing how those two numbers are equal only under a very particular set of assumptions. Then, second, they demonstrate that, even if the two numbers are equal (such that the form of value in exchange equals the value of commodities in production), the production of commodities is based on a “social theft,” that is, the exploitation of workers.

Here’s the idea: assume that all commodities exchange at their values (that is, the kind of world—of free markets, private property, perfect information, and so on—presumed by mainstream economists). Labor power, too, is allowed to be bought and sold at its value. But after the value of labor power is realized in exchange and is set to work, more value is extracted than it costs employers to purchase it. In other words, an extra value—a surplus-value—is created by laborers (during the course of production) and appropriated by capitalists (and then realized, when the finished commodities are sold, in exchange).

My view is that the critique of capitalist class exploitation forms the utopian horizon of Marxian value theory. Since exploitation violates the social norms of fairness and justice (of “just deserts,” i.e., that everyone within capitalism gets what they deserve), it points in a quite different direction: the possibility of creating the economic and social conditions whereby exploitation is eliminated.

The differences between neoclassical price theory and Marxian value theory couldn’t be more stark. The differences are even more dramatic when we compare their utopian horizons. Whereas neoclassical price theory leads to a utopian celebration of capitalist markets, Marxian value theory both informs and is informed by a utopian critique of capitalist exploitation—and therefore a movement beyond capitalism.

In both cases—neoclassical price and Marxian value theory—the story about commodity exchange, and therefore the analysis of the form that wealth takes under capitalism, has a utopian dimension. The two theories have that in common. Where they differ is the form that utopian dimension takes. Neoclassical price theory is guided by a utopianism according to which free markets and private property represent the best possible way of organizing an economy—and therefore should be created and defended by any means necessary. Marxian value theory, as I interpret it, serves as a critique of all such utopianisms. It marks their failure, on their own terms, and points in a different direction—toward the possibility (but certainly not the necessity) of eliminating the exploitation that serves as the basis of capitalist wealth, and therefore of creating a different standard of fairness and justice.

As is well known, for generations of Marxian economists that utopian horizon has been summarized as “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”

 

*To be clear, modern neoclassical price theory extends some important aspects of the theory originally elaborated by Adam Smith—such as the focus on individuals and the general praise for free markets—but it also represents a fundamental break from Smith’s theory—especially from the classical labor theory of value Smith and other classical economists (such as David Ricardo) utilized.

**It’s actually a pretty complicated set of steps, which most students are never taught. The key is that p*, the equilibrium price, is determined not just by supply and demand, but by the imposition of a third condition—a market-clearing equation—such that the quantity supplied is arbitrarily assumed to be equal to the quantity demanded.

 

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To judge by Christopher Snyder’s attempt to defend contemporary economists, the answer is clear: nothing!

Yes, Snyder is right, economists have expanded their domain, to analyze such issues as art auctions and corruption. But then he goes off the rails.

That’s because the only kind of economics Snyder appears to know about and give credence to is mainstream economics—in terms of what he argues are the “core concepts” that underlie what he presumes to be all economists’ thinking.

What are those core concepts, around which all of us supposedly organize our theories and models?

For starters, Snyder thinks the most important one is “scarcity”:

Devoting resources to one project—say, preventing diabetes—means some other worthy project—curing cancer—goes unserved. So, in determining whether a choice should be undertaken, one of the functions of economics is to argue that its benefits should not be considered in isolation but weighed against its costs. Costs put a dollar value on what has to be given up when one choice is made over another.

But he never even considers the possibility that scarcity is institutionally created, not a given. And different economies are characterized by different kinds of scarcities, which are endogenously produced and reproduced. Thus, capitalism both creates and is characterized different scarcities from other economic systems, such as slavery and feudalism. Where is that in Snyder’s definition of what economists do and the core concepts they supposedly hold.

And then there’s “value,” which for Snyder “is the result of the interaction of several impersonal market forces,” illustrated in the usual fashion:

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But there’s no mention of long-run “natural” prices (of the sort classical economists such as David Ricardo or, more recently, Piero Sraffa focused on) or a class theory of value (emphasizing surplus labor, which Karl Marx developed in his critique of political economy)—or any one of a large number of other ways value can be, has been, and is being analyzed within economics.

Finally, Snyder, discusses “modern empirical research” and the attempt to uncover “true causal relationships rather than overinterpreting apparent correlations as causation.”

Uncovering causal relationships is difficult in economics. Opportunities to run experiments are limited by the expense and ethics involved in controlled interventions in markets (although these opportunities are growing, owing to an explosion of interest in laboratory and field experiments).

Once again, Snyder overlooks the many alternative approaches—concerning both “facts” and “causation”—within economics.

Sure, mainstream economists might claim they’ve finally solved the problem of “causal identification” (as they’ve claimed so many other times in the past). But they still fail to acknowledge the possibility that different economic theories produce different sets of facts. Nor do they consider the idea that economists actually use different notions of causation: some limit themselves to essentialist, one-way causation (from given causes to effects), while others, criticize essentialism and look at mutual effectivity (in which everything is seen to be both cause and effect).

The existence of different notions of scarcity, value, and causation within economics doesn’t prove that mainstream economists are wrong. It merely shows that reducing economics to a set of core concepts that pertain only to what mainstream economists do is wrong.

The problem, of course, is that’s the only set of concepts to which generations of students, who have been taught by mainstream economists, have been exposed. And Snyder just continues that tradition.

In the end, mainstream economists are good for nothing precisely because they exclude all other ways of thinking about and doing economics.

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Tim Harford offers a short but useful piece on the medieval origins of modern banking—in the Knights Templar, the great fair of Lyon, and so on.*

The Templars dedicated themselves to the defence of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. The city had been captured by the first crusade in 1099 and pilgrims began to stream in, travelling thousands of miles across Europe.

Those pilgrims needed to somehow fund months of food and transport and accommodation, yet avoid carrying huge sums of cash around, because that would have made them a target for robbers.

Fortunately, the Templars had that covered. A pilgrim could leave his cash at Temple Church in London, and withdraw it in Jerusalem. Instead of carrying money, he would carry a letter of credit. The Knights Templar were the Western Union of the crusades.

But, with the loss of control over of Jerusalem, the Templars were eventually disbanded in 1312.

So who would step into the banking vacuum?

If you had been at the great fair of Lyon in 1555, you could have seen the answer. Lyon’s fair was the greatest market for international trade in all Europe.

But at this particular fair, gossip was starting to spread about an Italian merchant who was there, and making a fortune.

He bought and sold nothing: all he had was a desk and an inkstand.

Day after day he sat there, receiving other merchants and signing their pieces of paper, and somehow becoming very rich.

The locals were very suspicious.

But to a new international elite of Europe’s great merchant houses, his activities were perfectly legitimate.

He was buying and selling debt, and in doing so he was creating enormous economic value.

And that’s Harford’s mistake: there’s is nothing about the buying and selling of debt (or, for that matter, any other financial service, from changing money to issuing letters of credit) that creates value, enormous or otherwise.

Banking often enables value to be created. Surplus-value, too. But it doesn’t create either value or surplus-value.

What bankers do is capture a portion of the surplus-value that is embodied in the goods and services that are produced, which is then distributed to them by those who actually appropriate the surplus-value. In other words, bankers (like many others, from managers to merchants) share in the booty.

Medieval bankers managed to get a cut of the surplus they did not create. And that’s exactly what bankers do today.

 

*Harford also notes that “by turning personal obligations into internationally tradable debts, these medieval bankers were creating their own private money, outside the control of Europe’s kings.” But he fails to mention the obvious contemporary parallel, Bitcoin, the private digital currency and payments system that was invented to finance criminal activities.

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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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In a society in which the products of human labor take the form of commodities, there’s a tendency to think a commodity’s exchange-value is equal to its value to society.

That’s what neoclassical economists do. So, apparently, does Marco Rubio.

Tuesday night, in the fourth Republican debate, Sen. Marco Rubio decided to make a point about the state of wages, education, and employment in America by comparing welders with philosophers. “For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education,” Rubio said. “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”

Now, it is true, the labor embodied during the course of producing a commodity is not socially validated unless and until it is exchanged in a market. The same holds for the ability to work (although, to be sure, labor power isn’t actually produced like other commodities). In both cases, within capitalism, private labor is transformed into social labor via the market.

However, as philosopher (and friend) Avery Kolers explains, that doesn’t mean the “social worth of a profession tracks the market price it commands in the current economy.”

It is false for at least two reasons. First, it is false because current market prices are distorted by a wide range of diseconomies that have funneled virtually all gains from the recovery into the pockets of the wealthiest Americans. The US economy shovels massive externalitiescosts and risks that fall on those who don’t incur them – onto working people, future generations, and the natural environment, while the wealthy few hoard the benefits. One particularly important case is carbon pollution. Because market prices do not reflect these externalities, all prices in the economy are distorted, including the price of labor and the prices of the machines that replace human labor. So there is no reason to think that the price my labor commands in the current economy is the price my labor would command in an actual market — an economy where costs were internalized, that is, paid by those who produce them. The day I hear Republicans talk about making polluters pay is the day I’ll begin to believe that they care about genuinely free markets.

But even if we made it so that rich people could not offload costs onto poor people, it would still not be the case that the social worth of a profession would be determined by the price its members could command on a market. Market prices reflect supply and demand. If there is a glut of X and a shortage of Y, the price of X goes down and that of Y goes up. It has nothing to do with the social worth of either thing. Worth is a completely different issue; English teachers, social workers, poets, and of course, Republican presidential candidates, are currently in higher supply than demand; this diminishes their wages and employment opportunities in these fields, but it says nothing at all about their social role or value.

To be clear, even if a commodity’s value were equal to its exchange-value (i.e., in the absence of externalities), that doesn’t mean we, as a society, need to make our decisions based on exchange-values alone.

It is only the hubris of neoclassical economists and politicians like Marco Rubio that presumes a commodity’s market price is the sole criterion of its worth to society.

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Neoclassical economists don’t have a lot to say about the value of art. Basically, they start from the proposition that a work of art, such as Picasso’s “Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’),” is often considered to have two different values: an aesthetic or cultural value (its cultural worth or significance) and a price or exchange-value (the amount of money a work of art fetches on the market). They then demonstrate that, within free markets, individual choices ensure that the price of art generally captures or represents all of the various dimensions of value attributable to the work of art, rendering the need for a separate concept of aesthetic or cultural value redundant. Therefore, on their view, Picasso’s painting is “worth” the record auction price of $179.37 million.*

But the Wall Street Journal (gated) observes that yesterday’s sale of other paintings—including Mark Rothko’s “Untitled (Yellow and Blue)”—reveals something else:

Some paintings act like object lessons in tracking the global migration of wealth, bouncing from one owner to the next in timely turns. Such was the case Tuesday when Sotheby’s sold a $46.5 million Mark Rothko abstract that previously belonged to U.S. banker Paul Mellon and later to French luxury executive François Pinault.

All night long, Sotheby’s sale demonstrated the power that the younger, international set is wielding over the art market, pushing up brand-name artists and newcomers alike. Bidders from more than 40 countries raised their paddles at some point during Sotheby’s $379.7 million sale of contemporary art, and the house said bidding proved particularly strong from collectors in Asia and across Latin America.

Clearly, the ever-expanding bubble in high-end art is predicated on the extraordinary amount of surplus that is being captured by a tiny number of individuals at the very top of the world’s distribution of income and their willingness to spend a portion of it on “vanity capital.”

As Neil Irwin explains,

Let’s assume, for a minute, that no one would spend more than 1 percent of his total net worth on a single painting. By that reckoning, the buyer of Picasso’s 1955 “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)” would need to have at least $17.9 billion in total wealth. That would imply, based on the Forbes Billionaires list, that there are exactly 50 plausible buyers of the painting worldwide.

This is meant to be illustrative, not literal. Some people are willing to spend more than 1 percent of their wealth on a painting; the casino magnate Steve Wynn told Bloomberg he bid $125 million on the Picasso this week, which amounts to 3.7 percent of his estimated net worth. The Forbes list may also have inaccuracies or be missing ultra-wealthy families that have succeeded in keeping their holdings secret.

But this crude metric does show how much the pool of potential mega-wealthy art buyers has increased since, for example, the last time this particular Picasso was auctioned, in 1997.

After adjusting for inflation and using our 1 percent of net worth premise, a person would have needed $12.3 billion of wealth in 1997 dollars to afford the painting. Look to the Forbes list for that year, and only a dozen families worldwide cleared that bar.

In other words, the number of people who, by this metric, could easily afford to pay $179 million for a Picasso has increased more than fourfold since the painting was last on the market. That helps explain the actual price the painting sold for in 1997: a mere $31.9 million, which in inflation-adjusted terms is $46.7 million. There were, quite simply, fewer people in the stratosphere of wealth who could bid against one another to get the price up to its 2015 level.

More people with more money bidding on a more or less fixed supply of something can only drive the price upward. On Monday, the auction was for fine art. But the same dynamic applies for prime real estate in central London or overlooking Central Park, or for bottles of 1982 Bordeaux.

The pool of “potential mega-wealthy art buyers” has indeed expanded but it’s still a infinitesimal fraction of the world’s population. Still, it’s enough to set record prices in recent art auctions, which (along with real-estate and fine-wine markets) thereby serves as a window on the grotesque levels of economic inequality we are witnessing in the world today.

But there’s another aspect of the Wall Street Journal story (and of many other articles I’ve read about recent art auctions) that deserves attention: the worry that the highly unequal distribution of income and wealth is migrating out of the West—to the East (especially China) and the Global South (particularly Latin America). It’s a worry that the cultural patrimony of the West is being exported (or, if you prefer, re-exported, after centuries of plunder of the empire’s hinterland) as the surplus being generated within the world economy is increasingly being captured by individuals outside the West.

I wonder, then, if this worry (about the migration of wealth and art) will ultimately be reflected in Western neoclassical economists’ long-held celebration of free markets—and if will there be a new round of preoccupation about the differences between market and aesthetic values, as the demands of new buyers from outside the West succeed in determining ever-higher prices for the art (and utilizing the surplus) the West has long claimed as its own.

*For other mainstream economists, if art’s cultural value is not adequately represented by its exchange-value (because, for example, art has “positive externalities,” that is, benefits to society beyond what is captured in the market price), then there is room for public subvention of art and of artists. And that ends up determining the limits of debate within mainstream economics: the neoclassical view of free private art markets (when the two values are the same) versus the alternative view in favor of public support for the arts (if and when they are not).

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Like the capital controversy of the 1960s, the current controversy over human capital pits neoclassical economics against its critics.

The original capital controversy (also known as the Cambridge controversy, because it was staged between neoclassical economists at MIT, and thus of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and non-neoclassical economists at Cambridge University, and thus of Cambridge, England), which actually took place between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s, was narrowly about the internal consistency of neoclassical economics and more generally about the role of capital in economic theory. The basic idea is that, in a world of heterogeneous capital goods (e.g., a shovel and an automobile assembly-line), you need to know the price of capital (the interest rate or rate of return on capital) in order to determine the quantity of capital (i.e., in order to add up all those different kinds of physical capital). But, in neoclassical economics, you need to use the quantity of capital in order to determine the price of capital (via supply and demand in the “capital market”), which creates a fundamental problem for the neoclassical theory of capital.

Hence, Joan Robinson’s famous question, “What is capital?” To which neoclassical economists responded with gobbledy-gook. And so Robinson repeated her question, the neoclassicals with gobbledy-gook, and the controversy continued without resolution. Neoclassical economists, like Robert Solow, resorted to an aggregate production function (where the problem of heterogenous goods is simply defined away), while Robinson and the other anti-neoclassical economists on the other side of the pond entered into increasingly arcane areas of dispute, such as reswitching and capital-reversing.*

As I have long explained to students, the theory of capital is the most controversial topic in the history of economic thought because the theory of capital is the theory of profits—and therefore an answer to the question, do the capitalists deserve the profits they get?

The original capital controversy was never resolved. But now there’s a new capital controversy, a debate about human capital. It was launched by Branko Milanovic, based on Thomas Piketty’s refusal to include human capital in the other forms of capital he measures in his inquiry about the history and future prospects of wealth inequality.** Basically, Milanovic argues that labor is not a form of capital because labor involves a “doing” (work has to be performed in order for skills to be used and wages to be paid) while other forms of capital are characterized not by work but by nonwork, that is, ownership (financial capital generates a return based on owning some of financial claim, and no work is involved in making such a claim).

why is “human capital” such a disastrous turn of phrase? There are two reasons. First, it obfuscates the crucial difference between labor and capital by terminologically conflating the two. Labor now seems to be just a subspecies of capital. Second and more important, it leads to a perception — and sometimes to the argument used by insufficiently careful economists — that all individuals, whether owners of real capital or not, are basically capitalists. Even if you have human capital and I have financial capital, we are fundamentally the same. Entirely lost is the key distinction that for you to get an income from your human capital, you have to work. For me to get an income from my financial capital, I do not.

I’m with Milanovic on this. There is a fundamental difference between doing and owning, between doing labor and owning capital. But I also think the human capital controversy has even larger implications.

First, a bit of history: the idea of human capital was invented in the early 1960s by neoclassical economist Theodore Schultz [pdf] as part of a more general attack on Marxian-inspired notions of capital (capital that is connected to profits and therefore exploitation), an extension of Adam Smith’s theory of the causes of the wealth of nations (which now, Schultz argued, should include the accumulation of all prior investments in education, on-the-job training, health, migration, and other factors that increase individual productivity), and an attempt to depict all economic agents, including laborers, as capitalists (who “invest” in and “manage a portfolio” of skills and abilities). Human capital can thus be seen as, simultaneously, a blunting of the critical dimension of capital (broadening it to matters other than profits and thus a particular set of claims on the surplus) and a step in the creation of the neoliberal subject (who seeks a “return” on its “investments” in itself).

Second, the problems associated with the notion of human capital, which Piketty’s correctly does not include in his definition of wealth (since, for Piketty, “capital is defined as the sum total of nonhuman assets that can be owned and exchanged on some market”), also serve to undermine at least part of Piketty’s project. One of the elements missing from Piketty’s approach to capital as wealth is any kind of “doing.” It’s all about owning (of “real property” as well as of “financial and professional capital”), without any discussion of the labor that has to be performed in order to generate some kind of extra value and thus a return on capital.

And so, as is always the case in economics, it comes down to a theory of value. In neoclassical theory, all factors of production get, in the form of income, an amount equal to their marginal contributions to production. Everyone contributes and everyone, within free markets, gets their “just deserts.” In Piketty’s world, the owners of capital manage to capture a larger and larger portion of the national income if the rate of economic growth is less than the rate of return on capital (which exacerbates the already-unequal distribution of income, based largely on CEO salaries). In a Marxian world, capital is a social relationship that both generates a surplus (because “industrial capital” exploits “productive labor”) and represents a distributed claim on one or another portion of the surplus (in the form of “financial capital,” the ownership of land, and so on), based on the idea that the “doing” of labor occurs simultaneously—as both cause and effect—with the “owning” of capital. Three different theories of value and thus three very different theories of capital.

But it doesn’t stop there. In recent years, we have seen a dreary expansion of the idea of capital beyond even physical/financial capital and human capital. It now includes—in the hands of business professors, economists, and other social scientists—intellectual, organizational, social, and other forms of capital. Somehow, if they call it capital, they think it deserves to be taken more seriously.

As I see it, all these new forms of capital, like human capital, are ways of expanding Smith’s wealth of nations; they are all seen as contributing to the production of more “stuff”—more use-values, the “immense accumulation of commodities.” But the expanding universe of capital also serves to hide the extent to which all that stuff, which is in reality socially produced, is then privately appropriated—leading to a growing gap between a tiny minority at the top and everyone else. In other words, it’s a pattern of private capitalist appropriation that creates a more and more unequal social distribution of income and wealth.

The capital controversy will remain with us, then, as long as we refuse to solve the problem of capital.

 

*Avi J. Cohen and G. C. Harcourt [pdf] provide a useful overview of the capital controversy.

**Nick Rowe and Tim Worstall have since criticized Milanovic and his call to junk the notion of human capital, and he in turn has responded to their criticisms.