Posts Tagged ‘workers’

Cartoon of the day

Posted: 18 October 2016 in Uncategorized
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Cartoon of the day

Posted: 14 October 2016 in Uncategorized
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We’ve just learned that the corporate payouts—dividends and stock buybacks—of large U.S. firms are expected to hit another record this year. At the same time, John Fernald writes for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco that the “new normal” for U.S. GDP growth has dropped to between 1½ and 1¾ percent, noticeably slower than the typical postwar pace.

What’s the connection?

Fernald, as is typical of many others who have concluded the United States has entered a period of slow growth, blames the “new normal” on exogenous events like population dynamics and education.

The slowdown stems mainly from demographics and educational attainment. As baby boomers retire, employment growth shrinks. And educational attainment of the workforce has plateaued, reducing its contribution to productivity growth through labor quality. The GDP growth forecast assumes that, apart from these effects, the modest productivity growth is relatively “normal”—in line with its pace for most of the period since 1973.

What Fernald and the others never mention is that American companies’ embrace of dividends and buybacks comes at the expense of business investment, which is an important contributor to worker productivity and long-term economic growth.

In other words, what they overlook is the possibility that the current slowdown—which, “for workers, means slow growth in average wages and living standards”—may be less a product of exogenous events and more the way the U.S. economy is currently organized.

When workers produce but do not appropriate the surplus, they are victims of a social theft. And then, when a larger and larger portion of of the surplus is distributed to shareholders (both outside investors and corporate executives)—that is, the tiny group at the top who share in the booty—workers are, once again, made to pay the cost.


Technically, there is no Nobel Prize in economics. What it is, instead, is the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, which members of the Nobel family and a previous winner (Friedrich von Hayek) have criticized.

So, where did the prize come from? As Avner Offer explains,

The Nobel prize came out of a longstanding social conflict. On one side, central banks and the better-off striving to keep property intact and prices stable; on the other, everyone else’s quest for economic security. The Swedish social democratic government clipped the wings of the central bank – Sveriges Riksbank – in pursuit of more housing and jobs. In compensation, the government allowed the central bank to keep some funds, which the bank used in 1968 to endow the Nobel prize in economics as a vanity project to mark its tercentenary.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Neoclassical Economics (as I dubbed it 5 years ago) was awarded jointly to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom. Officially, the 2016 prize recognized “their contributions to contract theory.” Unofficially, as I understand their work, it was all about attempting to solve a longstanding problem in neoclassical economic theory: the theory of the firm.

Historically, neoclassical economists (and, for that matter, not a few heterodox economists) simply assumed capitalist firms maximize profits. But, in the context of a market system, there’s no particular reason a non-market institution like “the firm” should exist (instead of, for example, everyone—workers, managers, suppliers, buyers, and so on—entering into market exchanges in parking lots or coffee shops each morning).* And yet corporations, many of them employing hundreds of thousands of workers and making record profits, have become central to the way capitalist economies are currently organized. Moreover, once you look inside that “black box,” a great deal more is going on. Workers are hired to perform necessary and surplus labor in the course of producing commodities by managers, who run the enterprise on a daily basis and receive a cut of the surplus from the board of directors, who themselves need to be elected by shareholders (who, together with money-lenders, merchants, government officials, and many others, inside and outside the enterprise, receive their own portions of the surplus). Corporations, as it turns out, are pretty complicated—political, cultural, and economic—institutions.

But when neoclassical economists like Hart and Holmstrom look inside the firm what they see is a single issue—a relationship between a “principal” and “agents.” Principals (e.g., capitalists) are presumed to enter into agreements—voluntary contracts—with agents (e.g., workers) to advance a goal (e.g., of maximizing profits). As they see it, contracts are risky because, first, principals and agents often have conflicting interests (e.g., principals want maximum effort while agents are presumed to engage in risk-averse, shirking behavior) and, second, measuring fulfillment of the goal is imperfect (that is, not all the actions of the agents can be perfectly observed). The whole point of contract theory, then, is to devise a relationship such that—through a combination of incentives and monitoring—agents can be made to work hard to fulfill the goal set by the principal.

In one of his most famous and influential papers, “Moral Hazard in Teams” (pdf, a link to the working-paper version), Holmstrom’s starting point is the idea that there’s a problem of “inducing agents to supply proper amounts of productive inputs when their actions cannot be observed and contracted upon directly” (in other words, moral hazard), especially when they work in teams. He then sets up a model in which he demonstrates that “separating ownership from production”—which also provides the incentive for limited monitoring by the owners (i.e., stockholders)—solves the problem of moral hazard and restores efficiency.**

In other words, the Nobel Prize-winning approach to contract theory is used to demonstrate what neoclassical economists had long presumed: that capitalist firms (and not, e.g., worker-owned enterprises) represent the most efficient way to organize production.

That’s why, from a neoclassical perspective, it is only natural that capital hires labor.


*In fact, Paul Samuelson (in 1957, in “Wages and Interest: A Modern Dissection of Marxian Economic Models,”American Economic Review) once argued that “In a perfectly competitive market, it really doesn’t matter who hires whom: so have labor hire ‘capital’.”

**Hart, for his part (in a paper with John Moore [pdf]), looked at the issue of property rights in relation to firms by distinguishing between owning a firm and contracting for services from another firm. Their model shows, once again in true neoclassical fashion, that the owner of an enterprise—who exercises “control,” not only over assets, but also over the workers tied to those assets—will have more control, leading to higher efficiency, if they directly employ the workers than if they have an arm’s-length contract with another employer of the workers. That’s because, under single ownership, the employer can “selectively fire the workers of the firm” if they dislike the workers’ performance, whereas under contracted services they can “fire” only the entire firm.



Late last month, I argued Donald Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to international trade. But his attacks on free trade are in fact resonating among working-class voters. That, and the fact that the polls show the presidential election much closer in recent weeks than anyone expected, has finally made others sit up and take notice.

And now we’re witnessing the free-trade, anti-Trump backlash.

Thomas B. Edsall cites the same Peter Goodman article I did last week, which included this astute observation:

Across much of the industrialized world, an outsize share of the winnings has been harvested by people with advanced degrees, stock options and the need for accountants. Ordinary laborers have borne the costs and suffered from joblessness and deepening economic anxiety.

But then Edsall goes all in with the mainstream economists who, as part of their unchanging mantra, celebrate free international trade.* He cites, as one example, Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management:

No nation can succeed by trying to protect the past from the future. We will succeed by having the confidence to embrace competition, and leveraging our comparative strengths, which are numerous. We have the largest, most productive and most technologically advanced economy that’s ever existed on this planet. The more open the world economy is, the more we have an opportunity to leverage our many strengths.

My sense is that mainstream economists are doubling down on their free-trade argument, forgetting about the “ordinary laborers [who] have borne the costs and suffered from joblessness and deepening economic anxiety,” for two major reasons.

First, they fervently believe in free trade, because their models are designed to ignore the unequal costs and benefits of international trade. That is, the “gains from trade” that supposedly accrue to everyone are literally baked into their models. And they’re afraid to admit that some gain, and many others lose, under existing international trade regimes and agreements. They’re afraid because admitting the unequal outcomes opens the door to intervening and creating patterns of trade that might actually help workers and other losers within the current arrangements. They’re also fearful of incurring the wrath of other mainstream economists, who attack any exceptions to the free-trade mantra with a vengeance (as even Paul Samuelson discovered).

Second, mainstream economists are doubling down on their defense of free trade because they’re willing to say anything and everything to attack Trump. Just the fact that Trump has had the temerity of criticizing free-trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, thereby creating (in the eyes of mainstream economists) the specter of protectionism, has led them to cast aside all caution and reinforce their uncritical support for free trade. (Edsall even invokes the long-discredited idea that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act was “one of the principle causes” of the first Great Depression to make the case.) But, of course, in their determination to oppose the Republican candidate, mainstream economists also dismiss the indignities and injuries many of Trump’s supporters have suffered in recent decades.**

International trade is not the only thing hurting American workers. It’s probably not even the major factor. Decades of stagnant wages, rising inequality, outsourcing, and job-displacing technological change created by their employers are, in my view, even more important. But mainstream economists’ and pundits’ all-out defense of free trade, their refusal to recognize the unequal benefits and costs of globalization, and their determined efforts to let employers completely off the hook are among the important reasons that, against all odds, Trump is only 5-6 points behind in the national polls.***


*It should come as no surprise that, according to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, the solution to the problems of international trade is. . .more trade.

**Many of Clinton’s supporters have also been harmed by U.S. economic policies, including international trade agreements.

***I wrote this post before the revelation of the 2005 Trump tape and the Wikileaks publication of the emails concerning Hillary Clinton’s speeches. Given the media coverage of the two events (plus whatever happens in the Sunday debate), my guess is the new polls will register a much larger lead for Clinton—and there will be much less discussion of international trade (or economics of any sort) in the weeks ahead.


Special mention

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