Varieties of Sabotage

Today’s New York Times: DNAInfo and Gothamist Are Shut Down after Vote to Unionize

Thorstein Veblen, The Engineers and the Price System:

“Sabotage” is a derivative of “sabot,” which is French for a wooden shoe. It means going slow, with a dragging, clumsy movement, such as that manner of footgear may be expected to bring on. So it has come to describe any manoeuvre of slowing-down, inefficiency, bungling, obstruction. … Manoeuvres of restriction, delay, and hindrance have a large share in the ordinary conduct of business; but it is only lately that this ordinary line of business strategy has come to be recognized as being substantially of the same nature as the ordinary tactics of the syndicalists. …But all this strategy of delay, restriction, hindrance, and defeat is manifestly of the same character, and should conveniently be called by the same name, whether it is carried on by business men or by workmen; so that it is no longer unusual now to find workmen speaking of “capitalistic sabotage” as freely as the employers and the newspapers speak of syndicalist sabotage. As the word is now used, and as it is properly used, it describes a certain system of industrial strategy or management, whether it is employed by one or another. What it describes is a resort to peaceable or surreptitious restriction, delay, withdrawal, or obstruction.

Sabotage commonly works within the law, although it may often be within the letter rather than the spirit of the law. It is used to secure some special advantage or preference, usually of a businesslike sort. It commonly has to do with something in the nature of a vested right, which one or another of the parties in the case aims to secure or defend, or to defeat or diminish; some preferential right or special advantage in respect of income or privilege, something in the way of a vested interest. Workmen have resorted to such measures to secure improved conditions of work, or increased wages, or shorter hours, or to maintain their habitual standards, to all of which they have claimed to have some sort of a vested right. Any strike is of the nature of sabotage, of course. Indeed, a strike is a typical species of sabotage. … So also, of course, a lockout is another typical species of sabotage. That the lockout is employed by the employers against the employees does not change the fact that it is a means of defending a vested right by delay, withdrawal, defeat, and obstruction of the work to be done.

By virtue of his ownership the owner-employer has a vested right to do as he will with his own property, to deal or not to deal with any person that offers, to withhold or withdraw any part or all of his industrial equipment and natural resources from active use for the time being, to run on half time or to shut down his plant and to lock out all those persons for whom he has no present use on his own premises. There is no question that the lockout is altogether a legitimate manoeuvre. It may even be meritorious, and it is frequently considered to be meritorious when its use helps to maintain sound conditions in business—that is to say profitable conditions—as frequently happens. … It should not be difficult to show that the common welfare in any community which is organized on the price system cannot be maintained without a salutary use of sabotage — that it to say, such habitual recourse to delay and obstruction of industry…

All this is matter of course, and notorious. But it is not a topic on which one prefers to dwell. Writers and speakers who dilate on the meritorious exploits of the nation’s business men will not commonly allude to this voluminous running administration of sabotage, this conscientious withdrawal of efficiency, that goes into their ordinary day’s work. One prefers to dwell on those exceptional, sporadic, and spectacular episodes in business where business men have now and again successfully gone out of the safe and sane highway of conservative business enterprise … by increasing the productive capacity of the industrial system …

It is for these business men to manage the country’s industry, of course, and therefore to regulate the rate and volume of output; and also of course any regulation of the output by them will be made with a view to the needs of business; that is to say, with a view to the largest obtainable net profit, not with a view to the physical needs of these peoples who have come through the war and have made the world safe for the business of the vested interests. Should the business men in charge, by any chance aberration, stray from this straight and narrow path of business integrity, and allow the community’s needs unduly to influence their management of the community’s industry, they would presently find themselves discredited and would probably face insolvency. Their only salvation is a conscientious withdrawal of efficiency.

 

At Jacobin: The Fed Doesn’t Work for You

I have a new piece up at Jacobin on December’s rate hike. In my experience, the editing at Jacobin is excellent. But for better or worse, they don’t go for footnotes. So I’m reposting this here with the original notes. And also for comments, which Jacobin (perhaps wisely) doesn’t allow.

I conveyed some of the same views on “What’d You Miss?” on Bloomberg TV a couple weeks ago. (I come on around 13:30.)

 

To the surprise of no one, the Federal Reserve recently raised the federal funds rate — the interest rate under its direct control — from 0–0.25 percent to 0.25–0.5 percent, ending seven years of a federal funds rate of zero.

But while widely anticipated, the decision still clashes with the Fed’s supposed mandate to maintain full employment and price stability. Inflation remains well shy of the Fed’s 2 percent benchmark (its interpretation of its legal mandate to promote “price stability”) — 1.4 percent in 2015, according to the Fed’s preferred personal consumption expenditure measure, and a mere 0.4 percent using the consumer price index — and shows no sign of rising.

US GDP remains roughly 10 percent below the pre-2008 trend, so it’s hard to argue that the economy is approaching any kind of supply constraints. Set aside the fundamental incoherence of the notion of “price stability” (let alone of a single metric to measure it) — according to the Fed’s professed rulebook, the case for a rate increase is no stronger today than a year or two ago. Even the business press, for the most part, fails to see the logic for raising rates now.

Yet from another perspective, the decision to raise the federal funds rate makes perfect sense. The consensus view considers the main job of central banks to be maintaining price stability by adjusting the short-term interest rate. (Lower interest rates are supposed to raise private spending when inflation falls short of the central bank’s target, and higher interest rates are supposed to restrain spending when inflation rises above the target.) But this has never been the whole story.

More importantly, the central bank helps paper over the gap between ideals and reality — the distance between the ideological vision of the economy as a system of market exchanges of real goods, and the concrete reality of production in pursuit of money profits.

Central banks are thus, in contemporary societies, one of the main sites at which capitalism’s “Polanyi problem” is managed: a society that truly subjected itself to the logic of market exchange would tear itself to pieces. But the conscious planning that confines market outcomes within tolerable bounds has to be hidden from view because if the role of planning was acknowledged, it would undermine the idea of markets as natural and spontaneous and demonstrate the possibility of conscious planning toward other ends.

The Fed is a central planner that dare not speak its name. [1]

One particular problem for central bank planners is managing the pace of growth for the system as a whole. Fast growth doesn’t just lead to rising prices — left to their own devices, individual capitalists are liable to bid up the price of labor and drain the reserve army of the unemployed during boom times. [2] Making concessions to workers when demand is strong is rational for individual business owners, but undermines their position as a class.

Solving this coordination problem is one of modern central bankers’ central duties. They pay close attention to what is somewhat misleadingly called the labor market, and use low unemployment as a signal to raise interest rates.

So in this respect it isn’t surprising to see the Fed raising rates, given that unemployment rates have now fallen below 5 percent for the first time since the financial crisis.

Indeed, inflation targeting has always been coupled with a strong commitment to restraining the claims of workers. Paul Volcker is now widely admired as the hero who slew the inflation dragon, but as Fed chair in the 1980s, he considered rolling back the power of organized labor — in terms of both working conditions and wages — to be his number one problem. [3] Volcker described Reagan’s breaking of the air-traffic controllers union as “the single most important action of the administration in helping the anti-inflation fight.”

As one of Volcker’s colleagues argued, the fundamental goal of high rates was that

labor begins to get the point that if they get too much in wages they won’t have a business to work for. I think that really is beginning to happen now and that’s why I’m more optimistic. . . . When Pan Am workers are willing to take 10 percent wage cuts because the airlines are in trouble, I think those are signs that we’re at the point where something can really start to happen.

Volcker’s successors at the Fed approached the inflation problem similarly. Alan Greenspan saw the fight against rising prices as, at its essence, a project of promoting weakness and insecurity among workers; he famously claimed that “traumatized workers” were the reason strong growth with low inflation was possible in the 1990s, unlike in previous decades.

Testifying before Congress in 1997, Greenspan attributed the “extraordinary’” and “exceptional” performance of the nineties economy to “a heightened sense of job insecurity” among workers “and, as a consequence, subdued wages.”

As Greenspan’s colleague at the Fed in the 1990s, Janet Yellen took the same view. In a 1996 Federal Open Market Committee meeting, she said her biggest worry was that “firms eventually will be forced to bid up wages to retain workers.” But, she continued, she was not too concerned at the moment because

while the labor market is tight, job insecurity also seems alive and well. Real wage aspirations appear modest, and the bargaining power of workers is surprisingly low . . . senior workers and particularly those who have earned wage premia in the past, whether it is due to the power of their unions or the generous compensation policies of their employers, seem to be struggling to defend their jobs . . . auto workers are focused on securing their own benefits during their lifetimes but appear reconciled to accepting two-tier wage structures . . .

And when a few high-profile union victories, like the Teamsters’ successful 1997 strike at UPS, seemed to indicate organized labor might be reviving, Greenspan made no effort to hide his displeasure:

I suspect we will find that the [UPS] strike has done a good deal of damage in the past couple of weeks. The settlement may go a long way toward undermining the wage flexibility that we started to get in labor markets with the air traffic controllers’ strike back in the early 1980s. Even before this strike, it appeared that the secular decline in real wages was over.

The Fed’s commitment to keeping unemployment high enough to limit wage gains is hardly a secret — it’s right there in the transcripts of FOMC meetings, and familiar to anyone who has read left critics of the Fed like William Greider and Doug Henwood. The bluntness with which Fed officials take sides in the class war is still striking, though.

Of course, Fed officials deny they’re taking sides. They justify policies that keep workers too weak, disorganized, and traumatized to demand higher wages by focusing on the purported dangers of low unemployment. Lower unemployment, they say, leads to higher money wages, and higher money wages are passed on as higher prices, ultimately leaving workers’ real pay unchanged while eroding their savings.

So while it might look like naked class warfare to deliberately raise unemployment to keep wage demands “subdued”, the Fed assures us that it’s really in the best interests of everyone, including workers.

Keeping Wages in Check

The low-unemployment-equals-high-prices story has always been problematic. But for years its naysayers were silenced by the supposed empirical fact of the Phillips curve, which links low unemployment to higher inflation.

The shaky empirical basis of the Phillips curve was the source of major macroeconomic debates in the 1970s, when monetarists claimed that any departure from unemployment’s “natural” rate would lead inflation to rise, or fall, without limit. This “vertical Phillips curve” was used to deny the possibility of any tradeoff between unemployment and inflation — a tradeoff that, in the postwar era, was supposed to be managed by a technocratic state balancing the interests of wage earners against the interest of money owners.

In the monetarist view, there were no conflicting interests to balance, since there was just one possible rate of unemployment compatible with a stable price system (the “Non Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment”). This is still the view one finds in most textbooks today.

In retrospect, the 1970s debates are usually taken as a decisive blow against the “bastard Keynesian” orthodoxy of the 1960s and 1970s. They were also an important factor in the victory of monetarism and rational expectations in the economics profession, and in the defeat of fiscal policy in the policy realm.

But today there’s a different breakdown in the relationship between unemployment and inflation that threatens to dislodge orthodoxy once again. Rather than a vertical curve, we now seem to face a “horizontal” Phillips curve in which changes in unemployment have no consequences for inflation one way or another.

Despite breathless claims about the end of work, there hasn’t been any change in the link between output and employment; and low unemployment is still associated with faster wage growth. But the link between wage growth and inflation has all but disappeared.

Annual wage growth for nonsupervisory workers (X) and CPI inflation (Y), 1965–1995.
Annual wage growth for nonsupervisory workers (X) and CPI inflation (Y), 1965–1995.

 

Annual wage growth for nonsupervisory workers (X) and CPI inflation (Y), 1995–2015.
Annual wage growth for nonsupervisory workers (X) and CPI inflation (Y), 1995–2015.

This gap in the output-unemployment-wages-inflation causal chain creates a significant problem for central bank ideology.

When Volcker eagerly waited for news on the latest Teamsters negotiations, it was ostensibly because of the future implications for inflation. Now, if there is no longer any visible link between wage growth and inflation, then central bankers might stop worrying so much about labor market outcomes. Put differently, if the Fed’s goal was truly price stability, then the degree to which workers are traumatized would no longer matter so much.

But that’s not the only possibility. Central bankers might want to maintain their focus on unemployment and wages as immediate targets of policy for other reasons. In that case they’d need to change their story.

The current tightening suggests that this is exactly what’s happening. Targeting “wage inflation” seems to be becoming a policy goal in itself, regardless of whether it spurs price increases.

recent piece by Justin Wolfers in the New York Times is a nice example of where conventional wisdom is heading: “It is only when nominal wage growth exceeds the sum of inflation (about 2 percent) and productivity growth (about 1.5 percent) that the Fed needs to be concerned. . .”

This sounds like technical jargon, but if taken seriously it suggests a fundamental shift in the objectives of monetary policy.

By definition, the change in the wage share of output is equal to the rise in money wages minus the sum of the inflation rate and the increase in labor productivity. To say “nominal wage growth is greater than the sum of inflation and productivity growth” is just a roundabout way of saying “the wage share is rising.” So in plain English, Wolfers is saying that the Fed should raise rates if and only if the share of GDP going to workers threatens to increase.

Think for a moment about this logic. In the textbook story, wage growth is a problem insofar as it’s associated with rising inflation. But in the new version, wage growth is more likely to be a problem when inflation stays low.

Wolfers is the farthest thing from a conservative ideologue. His declaration that the Fed needs to guard against a rise in the wage share is simply an expression of conventional elite wisdom that comes straight from the Fed. A recent post by several economists at the New York Fed uses an identical definition of “overheating” as wage growth in excess of productivity growth plus inflation.

Focusing on wage growth itself, rather than the unemployment-inflation nexus, represents a subtle but far-reaching shift in the aim of policy. According to official rhetoric, an inflation-targeting central bank should only be interested in the part of wage changes that co-varies with inflation. Otherwise changes in the wage share presumably reflect social or technological factors rather than demand conditions that are not the responsibility of the central bank.

To be fair, linking demand conditions to changes in the distribution between profits and wages, rather than to inflation, is a more realistic than the old orthodoxy that greater bargaining power for workers cannot increase their share of the product. [4]

But it sits awkwardly with the central bank story that higher unemployment is necessary to keep down prices. And it undermines the broader commitment in orthodox economics to a sharp distinction — both theoretically and policy-wise — between a monetary, demand-determined short run and a technology and “real”-resources-determined long run, with distributional questions firmly located in the latter.

There’s a funny disconnect in these conversations. A rising wage share supposedly indicates an overheating economy — a macroeconomic problem that requires a central bank response. But a falling wage share is the result of deep structural forces — unrelated to aggregate demand and certainly not something with which the central bank should be concerned. An increasing wage share is viewed by elites as a sign that policy is too loose, but no one ever blames a declining wage share on policy that is too tight. Instead we’re told it’s the result of technological change, Chinese competition, etc.

Logically, central bankers shouldn’t be able to have it both ways. In practice they can and do.

The European Central Bank (ECB) — not surprisingly, given its more overtly political role — has gone further down this road than the Fed. Their standard for macroeconomic balance appears to be shifting from the NAIRU (Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment) to the NAWRU (Non-Accelerating Wage Rate of Unemployment).

If the goal all along has been lower wage growth, then this is not surprising: when the link between wages and inflation weakens, the response is not to find other tools for controlling inflation, but other arguments for controlling wages.

Indeed finding fresh arguments for keeping wages in check may be the real content of much of the “competitiveness” discourse. Replacing price stability with elevating competitiveness as the paramount policy goal creates a convenient justification for pushing down wages even when inflation is already extremely low.

It’s interesting in this context to look back at the ransom note the ECB sent to the Spanish government during the 2011 sovereign debt crisis. (Similar letters were sent to the governments of other crisis-hit countries.) One of the top demands the ECB made as a condition of stabilizing the market for government debt was the abolition of cost-of-living (COLA) clauses in employment contracts — even if adopted voluntarily by private employers.

Needless to say this is far beyond the mandate of a central bank as normally understood. [5] But the most interesting thing is the rationale for ending COLA clauses. The ECB declared that cost-of-living clauses are “a structural obstacle to the adjustment of labour costs” and “contribute to hampering competitiveness.”

This is worth unpacking. For a central bank concerned with price stability, the obvious problem with indexing wages to prices (as COLA clauses do) is that it can lead to inflationary spirals, a situation in which wages and prices rise together and real wages remain the same.

But this kind of textbook concern is not the ECB’s focus; instead, the emphasis on labor costs shows an abiding interest in tamping down real wages. In the old central bank story, wage indexing was supposedly bad because it didn’t affect (i.e., raise) real wages and only led to higher inflation. In the new dispensation, wage indexing is bad precisely because it does affect real wages. The ECB’s language only makes sense if the goal is to allow inflation to erode real wages.

The Republic of the Central Banker

Does the official story matter? Perhaps not.

The period before the 2008 crisis was characterized by a series of fulsome tributes to the wisdom of central banking maestros, whose smug and uncritical tone must be causing some embarrassment in hindsight.

Liberals in particular seemed happy to declare themselves citizens of the republic of the central bankers. Cristina Romer — soon to head President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers — described the defeat of postwar Keynesian macroeconomics as a “glorious counterrevolution” and explained that

better policy, particularly on the part of the Federal Reserve, is directly responsible for the low inflation and the virtual disappearance of the business cycle . . . The story of stabilization policy of the last quarter century is one of amazing success. We have seen the triumph of sensible ideas and have reaped the rewards in terms of macroeconomic performance. The costly wrong turn in ideas and macropolicy of the 1960s and 1970s has been righted and the future of stabilization looks bright.

The date on which the “disappearance of the business cycle” was announced? September 2007, two months before the start of the deepest recession in fifty years.

Romer’s predecessor on Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers (and later Fed vice-chair) Alan Blinder was so impressed by the philosopher-kings at the central bank that he proposed extending the same model to a range of decisions currently made by elected legislatures.

We have drawn the line in the wrong place, leaving too many policy decisions in the realm of politics and too few in the realm of technocracy. . . . [T]he argument for the Fed’s independence applies just as forcefully to many other areas of government policy. Many policy decisions require complex technical judgments and have consequences that stretch into the distant future. . . . Yet in such cases, elected politicians make the key decisions. Why should monetary policy be different? . . . The justification for central bank independence is valid. Perhaps the model should be extended . . . The tax system would surely be simpler, fairer, and more efficient if . . . left to an independent technical body like the Federal Reserve rather than to congressional committees.

The misguided consensus a decade ago about central banks’ ability to preserve growth may be just as wrong about central banks’ ability to derail it today. (Or at least, to do so with the conventional tools of monetary policy, as opposed to the more aggressive iatrogenic techniques of the ECB.)

The business press may obsess over every movement of the Fed’s steering wheel, but we should allow ourselves some doubts that the steering wheel is even connected to the wheels.

The last time the Fed tightened was ten years ago; between June 2004 and July 2006, the federal funds rate rose from 1 percent to 5 percent. Yet longer-term interest rates — which matter much more for economic activity — did not rise at all. The Baa corporate bond rate and thirty-year mortgage, for instance, were both lower in late 2006 than they had been before the Fed started tightening.

And among heterodox macroeconomists, there is a strong argumentthat conventional monetary policy no longer plays an important role in the financial markets where longer-term interest rates are set. Which means it has at best limited sway over the level of private spending. And the largest impacts of the rate increase may not be in the US at all, but in the “emerging markets” that may be faced with a reversal of capital flows back toward the United States.

Yet whatever the concrete effects of the Fed’s decision to tighten, it still offers some useful insight into the minds of our rulers.

We sometimes assume that the capitalist class wants growth at any cost, and that the capitalist state acts to promote it. But while individual capitalists are driven by competition to accumulate endlessly, that pressure doesn’t apply to the class as a whole.

A regime of sustained zero growth, by conventional measures, might be difficult to manage. But in the absence of acute threats to social stability or external competition (as from the USSR during the postwar “Golden Age”), slow growth may well be preferable to fast growth, which after all empowers workers and destabilizes existing hierarchies. In China, 10 percent annual growth may be essential to the social contract, but slow growth does not — yet — seem to threaten the legitimacy of the state in Europe, North America, or Japan.

As Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch persuasively argue, even periodic crises are useful in maintaining the rule of money. They serve as reminders that the confidence of capital owners cannot be taken for granted. As Kalecki famously noted, the threat of a crisis when “business confidence” is shaken is a “powerful controlling device” for capitalists vis-à-vis the state. Too much success controlling crises is dangerous — it makes this threat less threatening.

So perhaps the most important thing about the Fed’s recent rate hike is that it’s a reminder that price stability and inflation management are always a pretext, or at best just one reason among others, for the managers of the capitalist state to control rapid growth and the potential gains for workers that follow. As the shifting justifications for restraining wage growth suggest, the republic of the central banker has always been run in the interests of money owners.

Some critics of the rate hike see it as a ploy to raise the profits of banks. In my opinion, this theory isn’t convincing. A better conspiracy theory is that it’s part of the larger project of keeping us all insecure and dependent on the goodwill of the owning class.

 

[1] The role of central banks in disguising the moment of conscious planning under capitalism and preserving the ideological fiction of spontaneous order is clearly visible in the way monetary policy is discussed by economists. From the concrete to the abstract. First, the “independent” status of central banks is supposed to place them outside the collective deliberation of democratic politics. Second, there is a constant attraction to the idea of a monetary policy “rule” that could be adopted once and for all, removing any element of deliberate choice even from the central bankers themselves. (Milton Friedman is only the best-known exponent of this idea, which is a central theme of discussion of central banks from the 18th century down to the present.) Third, in modern models, the “reaction function” of the central bank is typically taken as one of the basic equations of the model — the central bank’s reaction to a deviation of inflation from its chosen path has the same status as, say, the reaction of households to a change in prices. As Peter Dorman points out, there’s something very odd about putting policy inside the model this way. But it has the clear ideological advantage of treating the central bank as if it were simply part of the natural order of optimization by individual agents.

[2] The best analysis of the crisis of the 1970s in these terms remains Capitalism Since 1945, by Armstrong, Glyn and Harrison.

[3] The linked post by Peter Frase does an excellent job puncturing the bipartisan mythmaking around the Volcker and bringing out the centrality of his anti-labor politics. But it contains one important error. Frase describes the late-1970s crisis to which Volcker was responding as “capital refusing to invest, and labor refusing to take no for an answer.” The latter might be true but the former certainly is not: The late 1970s saw the greatest boom in business investment in modern US history; 1981 had the highest investment-GDP ratio since the records begin in 1929. High demand and negative real interest rates — which made machines and buildings more attractive than wealth in financial form — outweighed low profits, and investment boomed. (An oil boom in the southwest and generous tax subsidies also helped.) The problem Volcker was solving was not,as Frase imagines, that the process of accumulation was threatened by the refusal of unhappy money owners to participate. It was, in some ways, an even more threatening one — that real accumulation was proceeding fine despite the unhappiness of money owners. In the often-brilliant Buying Time, Wolfgang Streeck  makes a similar mistake.

[4] More precisely, it’s a return to what Anwar Shaikh calls the classical Phillips curve found in the Marxist literature, for instance in the form of Goodwin cycles. (The Shaikh article is very helpful in systematically thinking through alternative relationships between nominal wages, the wage share and inflation.)

[5] It’s worth noting that in these cases the ECB got what it wanted, or enough of it, and did aggressively intervene to stabilize government debt markets and the banking systems in almost all the crisis countries. As a result, the governments of Spain, Italy and Portugal now borrow more cheaply than ever in history. As I periodically point out, the direct cause of the crisis in Greece was the refusal of the ECB to extend it the same treatment. A common liberal criticism of the euro system is that it is too rigid, that it automatically applies a single policy to all its members even when their current needs might be different. But the reality is the opposite. The system, in the form of the ECB, has enormous discretion, and the crisis in Greece was the result of the ECB’s choice to apply a different set of policies there than elsewhere.

Mark Blyth on the Creditor’s Paradise

There’s a lot to like in this talk by Mark Blyth, reposted in Jacobin. I will certainly be quoting him in the future on the euro system as a “creditor’s paradise.” But I can’t help noting that the piece repeats exactly the two bits of conventional wisdom that I’ve been criticizing in my recent posts here on Europe. [1]

First, the uncritical adoption of the orthodox view that if Greece defaults on its debts to the euro system, it will have to leave the single currency.  Admittedly it’s just a line in passing. But I really wish that Blyth would not write “default or ‘Grexit’,” as if they were synonyms. Given that the assumption that they have to go together is one of the strongest weapons on the side of orthodoxy, opponents of austerity should at least pause a moment and ask if they necessarily do.

Second, this:

Austerity as economic policy simply doesn’t work. … European reforms … simply ask everyone to become “more competitive” — and who could be against that? Until one remembers that being competitive against each other’s main trading partners in the same currency union generates a “moving average” problem of continental proportions. 

It is statistically absurd to all become more competitive. It’s like everyone trying to be above average. It sounds like a good idea until we think about the intelligence of the children in a classroom. By definition, someone has to be the “not bright” one, even in a class of geniuses.

In comments to my last post, a couple people doubted if critics of austerity really say it’s impossible for all the countries in the euro to become more competitive. If you were one of the doubters, here you go: Mark Blyth says exactly that. Notice the slippage in the referent of “everyone,” from all countries in the euro system, to all countries in the world. Contra Blyth, since the eurozone is not a closed trading system, it is not inherently absurd to suggest that everyone in it can become more competitive. If competitiveness is measured by the trade balance, it’s not only not absurd, it’s an accomplished fact.

Obviously — but I guess it isn’t obvious — I don’t personally think that the shift toward trade surpluses throughout the eurozone represents any kind of improvement in the human condition. But it does directly falsify the claim Blyth is making here. And this is a problem if the stance we are trying to criticize austerity from is a neutral technocratic one, in which disagreements are about means rather than ends.

Austerity is part of the program of reinforcing and extending the logic of the market in political and social life. Personally I find that program repugnant. But on its own terms, austerity can work just fine.

[1] One of my posts was also cross-posted at Jacobin. Everybody should read Jacobin.

The Dressmaker

An interesting fact about the world we live in is that, for all the talk about robots replacing human labor, every item of clothing you own was made by a human being sitting at a sewing machine. In fact, you could argue that the whole idea of a robot revolution is, like most science fiction fantasies, simply a literalization of a current social fact — in this case, the disappearance of manual workers from the social world of rich Westerners. Everyone who writes about the Star Trek future works in a building where living people empty the trash cans and scrub the toilets; but since they are never required to treat those people as human beings, they might as well be robots. In some cases I would go a step further, and say the robot revolution expresses a wish: The wish that the people whose bodies create the conditions for our existence could be dismissed from humanity once and for all.

Robot fantasies are everywhere. Much rarer is work that reveals the human hands behind the commodities. I’m a big fan of David Redmon’s Mardi Gras: Made in China. Especially striking in that movie is the contrast between the way the American importer of mardis gras beads talks about the Chinese workers who produce them, and the way the factory manager in China does. In the imagination of the importer, the Chinese workers are antlike automatons, with no desire except for labor. The factory has a high fence around it, he explains, in order to keep out all the eager workers who would otherwise sneak in to join the assembly line. For the manager, on the other hand, discipline is the overriding problem. He says he only hires young women because they are more obedient, but even so they are constantly refusing to comply with his orders, distracted by friendships and love affairs, sneaking out of their dormitories. They must be punished often and harshly, he says, otherwise they won’t work. The change in perspective once you pass that sign that says “No admittance except on business” is no different than 150 years ago.

I don’t know of any similar tracing of the path of an ordinary piece of clothing from the shopfloor to the display racks, though there must be some. But I just read a nice piece by Roberto Saviano on the origins of one extraordinary piece of clothing, in a sweatshop in southern Italy. Here’s an excerpt — it’s a bit long but worth reading.

From Gomorrah, by Roberto Saviano:

The workers, men and women, came up to toast the new contract. They faced a grueling schedule: first shift from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., with an hour’s break to eat, second shift from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. The women were wearing makeup and earrings, and aprons to protect their clothes from the glue, dust, and machine grease. Like Superman, who takes off his shirt and reveals his blue costume underneath, they were ready to go out to dinner as soon as they removed their aprons. The men were sloppier, in sweatshirts and work pants. …

One of the winning contractor’s workers was particularly skilled: Pasquale. A lanky figure, tall, slim, and a bit hunchbacked; his frame curved behind his neck onto his shoulders, a bit like a hook. The stylists sent designs directly to him, articles intended for his hands only. His salary didn’t fluctuate, but his tasks varied, and he some how conveyed an air of satisfaction. I liked him immediately, the moment I caught sight of his big nose. Even though he was still young, Pasquale had the face of an old man. A face that was constantly buried in fabric, fingertips that ran along seams. Pasquale was one of the only workers who could buy fabric direct. Some brandname houses even trusted him to order materials directly from China and inspect the quality himself. …

Pasquale and I became close. He was like a prophet when he spoke about fabric and was overly fastidious in clothing stores; it was impossible even to go for a stroll with him because he’d plant himself in front of every shop window and criticize the cut of a jacket or feel ashamed for the tailor who’d designed such a skirt. He could predict the longevity of a particular style of pants, jacket, or dress, and the exact number of washings before the fabric would start to sag. Pasquale initiated me into the complicated world of textiles. I even started going to his home. His family—his wife and three children—made me happy. They were always busy without ever being frenetic.

That evening the smaller children were running around the house barefoot as usual, but without making a racket. Pasquale had turned on the television and was flipping channels, but all of a sudden he froze. He squinted at the screen, as if he were nearsighted, though he could see perfectly well. No one was talking, but the silence became more intense. His wife, Luisa, must have sensed something because she went over to “the television and clasped her hand over her mouth, as if she’d just witnessed something terrible and were holding back a scream. On TV Angelina Jolie was treading the red carpet at the Oscars, dressed in a gorgeous garment. One of those custom-made outfits that Italian designers fall over each other to offer to the stars. An outfit that Pasquale had made in an underground factory in Arzano. All they’d said to him was “This one’s going to America.” Pasquale had worked on hundreds of outfits going to America, but that white suit was something else. He still remembered all the measurements. The cut of the neck, the circumference of the wrists. And the pants. He’d run his hands inside the legs and could still picture the naked body that every tailor forms in his mind—not an erotic figure but one defined by the curves of muscles, the ceramics of bones. A body to dress, a meditation of muscle, bone, and bearing. Pasquale still remembered the day he’d gone to the port to pick up the fabric. They’d commissioned three suits from him, without saying anything else. They knew whom they were for, but no one had told Pasquale.

In Japan the tailor of the bride to the heir to the throne had had a state reception given in his honor. A Berlin newspaper had dedicated six pages to the tailor of Germany’s first woman chancellor, pages that spoke of craftsmanship, imagination, and elegance. Pasquale was filled with rage, a rage that it’s impossible to express. And yet satisfaction is a right, and merit deserves recognition. Deep in his gut he knew he’d done a superb job and he wanted to be able to say so. He knew he deserved something more. But no one had said a word to him. He’d discovered it by accident, by mistake. His rage was an end in itself, justified but pointless. He couldn’t tell anyone, couldn’t even whisper as he sat looking at the newspaper the next morning. He couldn’t say, “I made that suit.” No one would have believed that Angelina Jolie would go to the Academy Awards wearing an outfit made in Arzano, by Pasquale. The best and the worst. Millions of dollars and 600 euros a month. Neither Angelina Jolie nor the designer could have known. When everything possible has been done, when talent, skill, ability, and commitment are fused in a single act, when all this isn’t enough to change anything, then you just want to lie down, stretch out on nothing, in nothing. To vanish slowly, let the minutes wash over you, sink into them as if they were quicksand. To do nothing but breathe. Besides, nothing will change things, not even an outfit for Angelina Jolie at the Oscars.

Pasquale left the house without even bothering to shut the door. Luisa knew where he was going; she knew he was headed to Secondigliano and whom he was going to see. She threw herself on the couch and buried her face in a pillow like a child. I don’t know why, but when Luisa started to cry, it made me think of a poem by Vittorio Bodini. Lines that tell of the strategies southern Italian peasants used to keep from becoming soldiers, to avoid going off to fill the trenches of World War I in defense of borders they knew nothing of.

At the time of the other war, 
peasants and smugglers
put tobacco leaves under their arms
to make themselves ill.
The artificial fevers, the supposed malaria
that made their bodies tremble and their teeth rattle
were their verdict
on governments and history.

That’s how Luisa’s weeping seemed to me—a verdict on government and history. Not a lament for a satisfaction that went uncelebrated. It seemed to me an amended chapter of Marx’s Capital, a paragraph added to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, a new sentence in John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, a note in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. A page added or removed, a forgotten page that never got written or that perhaps was written many times over but never recorded on paper. Not a desperate act but an analysis. Severe, detailed, precise, reasoned. I imagined Pasquale in the street, stomping his feet as if knocking snow from his “boots. Like a child who is surprised to discover that life has to be so painful. He’d managed up till then. Managed to hold himself back, to do his job, to want to do it. And do it better than anyone else. But the minute he saw that outfit, saw that body moving inside the very fabric he’d caressed, he felt alone, all alone. Because when you know something only within the confines of your own flesh and blood, it’s as if you don’t really know it. And when work is only about staying afloat, surviving, when it’s merely an end in itself, it becomes the worst kind of loneliness.

I saw Pasquale two months later. They’d put him on truck detail. He hauled all sorts of stuff—legal and illegal—for the Licciardi family businesses. Or at least that’s what they said. The best tailor in the world was driving trucks for the Camorra, back and forth between Secondigliano and Lago di Garda. He asked me to lunch and gave me a ride in his enormous vehicle. His hands were red, his knuckles split. As with every truck driver who grips a steering wheel for hours, his hands freeze up and his circulation is bad. His expression was troubled; he’d chosen the job out of spite, out of spite for his destiny, a kick in the ass of his life. But you can’t tolerate things indefinitely, even if walking away means you’re worse off. During lunch he got up to go say hello to some of his accomplices, leaving his wallet on the table. A folded-up page from a newspaper fell out. I opened it. It was a photograph, a cover shot of Angelina Jolie dressed in white. She was wearing the suit Pasquale had made, the jacket caressing her bare skin. You need talent to dress skin without hiding it; the fabric has to follow the body, has to be designed to trace its movements.

I’m sure that every once in a while, when he’s alone, maybe when he’s finished eating, when the children have fallen asleep on the couch, worn-out from playing, while his wife is talking on the phone with her mother before starting on the dishes, right at that moment Pasquale opens his wallet and stares at that newspaper photo.

Review of Dumenil and Levy

The new issue of Rethinking Marxism has my review of The Crisis of Neoliberalism by Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy. Since RM is paywalled — a topic for another day — I’m putting the full text here.

Incidentally, I do recommend the book, but I would suggest just reading chapters 3-6, where the core arguments are developed, and then skipping to the final three chapters, 23-25.  The intervening material is narrowly focused on the 2008-2009 financial crisis and is of less interest today.

* * *

Historical turning points aren’t usually visible until well after the fact. But the period of financial and economic turmoil that began in 2008 may be one of the rare exceptions. If capitalism historically has evolved through a series of distinct regimes — from competition to monopoly in the late 19th century, to a regulated capitalism after World War II and then to neoliberalism after the crises of the 1970s, then 2008 may mark the beginning of another sharp turn.

That, anyway, is the central claim of The Crisis of Neoliberalism, by Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy (hereafter D&L). The book brings together a great deal of material, broadly grouped under two heads. First is an argument about the sociology of  capitalism, hinging on the relationship between capitalists in the strict sense and the managerial class. And second is an account of the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath. A concluding survey of possibilities for the post-neoliberal world unites the two strands.

For D&L, the key to understanding the transformations of capitalism over the past hundred years lies in the sociology of the capitalist class. With the rise of the modern corporation at the turn of the 20th century, it became more problematic to follow Marx in treating the capitalist as simply the “personification of capital.” While the logic of capital is the same — it remains, in their preferred formulation, “value in a movement of self-expansion” — distinct groups of human beings now stand at different points in that process. In particular, “the emergence of a bourgeois class more or less separated from the enterprise” (13) created a new sociological gulf between the ownership of capital and the management of production.

Bridging this gulf was a new social actor, Finance. While banks and other financial institutions predate industrial capitalism, they now took on an important new role: representation of the capitalist class vis-a-vis corporate management, a function not needed when ownership and management were united in the same person. “Financial institutions,” D&L write, “are an instrument in the hands of the capitalist class as a whole in the domination they exercise over the entire economy.” (57) This gives finance a dual character, as on the one hand one industry among others providing a particular good (intermediation, liquidity, etc.) but also as, on the other hand, the enforcers or administrators who ensure that industry as a whole remains organized according to the logic of profit.

The stringency of this enforcement varies over time. For D&L, the pre-Depression and post-Volcker eras are two periods of “financial hegemony,” in which holders of financial claims actively intervened in the governance of nonfinancial firms, compelling mergers of industrial companies in the first period, and engineering leveraged buyouts and takeovers in the second. By contrast, the postwar period was one of relative autonomy for the managerial class, with the owners of capital accepting a relatively passive role. One way to think of it is that since capital is a process, its expression as an active subject can occur at different moments of that process. Under financial hegemony, the political and sociological projections of capital emanated mostly from the M moment, but in the mid-century more from C-C’. Concretely, this means firms pursued objectives like growth, technical efficiency, market share or technological advance rather than (or in addition to) profit maximization – this is the “soulful corporation” of Galbraith or Chandler. Unlike those writers, however, D&L see this corporation-as-polis, balancing the interests of its various stakeholders under the steady hand of technocratic management, as neither the result of a natural evolution nor a normative ideal; instead, it’s a specific political-economic configuration that existed under certain historical conditions. In particular, managerial capitalism was the result of both the crisis of the previous period of financial hegemony and, crucially, of the mobilization of the popular classes, which opened up space for the top managers to pursue a strategy of “compromise to the left” while continuing to pay the necessary tribute to “the big capitalist families.”

Those families — the owners of capital, in the form of financial assets — were willing to accept a relatively passive role as long as the tribute flowed. But the fall in the profit rate in the 1970s forced the owners to recohere as a class for themselves. Their most important project was, of course, the attack on labor, in which capital and management were united. But a second, less visible fight was the capitalists’ attack on the managers, with finance as their weapon. The wave of corporate takeovers, buyouts and restructurings of the 1980s was not just a normal competitive push for efficiencies, nor was it the work of a few freebooting pirates and swindlers. As theorized by people like Michael Jensen, it was a self-conscious project to reorient management’s goals from the survival and growth of the firm, to “shareholder value”. In this, it succeeded – first by bullying and bludgeoning recalcitrant managers, then by incorporating their top tier into the capitalist class. “During the 1980s the disciplinary aspect of the new relationship between the capitalist and managerial classes was dominant,” write D&L, but “after 2000, … managers had become a pillar of Finance.” (84) Today, the “financial facet of management tends to overwhelmingly dominate” and “a process of ‘hybridization’ or merger is under way.” (85)

These are not entirely new ideas. D&L cite Veblen, certainly one of the first to critically investigate the separation of management and control, and to observe that the “importance of securities in ownership of the means of production [gives] … the capitalist class a strong financial character.” But they make no mention of the important debates on these issues among Marxists in the 1970s, especially Fitch and Oppenheimer’s Socialist Revolution articles on “Who Rules the Corporations?” and David Kotz’s Bank Control of Large Corporations in the United States. Most glaringly, they fail to cite Doug Henwood’s Wall Street, whose Chapter 6 gives a strikingly similar account of the revolt of the rentiers, and which remains the best guide to relations between finance and nonfinancial businesses within a broad Marxist framework. While Henwood shares the same basic analysis as The Crisis of Neoliberalism, he backs it up with a wealth of concrete examples and careful attention to the language of the financiers and their apologists. D&L, by contrast, despite their welcome interest in the sociology of the capitalist class, never descend from a high level of abstraction. D&L would have advanced the conversation more if they had tried to build on the contributions of Fitch and Oppenheimer, Kotz, and Henwood, instead of reinventing them.

Still, it’s an immensely valuable book. Both mainstream economists and Marxists often imbue capitalist firms with a false homogeneity, as if the pursuit of profit was just a natural fact or imposed straightforwardly by competition. D&L offer an important corrective, that firms (and social life in general) are only kept subordinate to the self-expansion of value through active, ongoing efforts to enforce and universalize financial criteria.

The last third of the book is an account of the global financial crisis of the past five years. Much of the specifics will be familiar to readers of the business press, but the central argument makes sense only in light of the earlier chapters: that the ultimate source of the crisis was precisely the success of the reestablishment of financial hegemony. In particular, deregulation — especially the freeing of cross-border capital flows — weakened the tools states had previously used to keep the growth of financial claims in line with the productive capacity of the economy. (It’s an irony of history that the cult of central banking “maestros” reached its height at the point when they had lost most of their real power.) Meanwhile, increased payouts to shareholders and other financial claimants starved firms of funds for accumulation. A corollary of this second point is that the crisis was characterized by underaccumulation rather than by underconsumption. The underlying demand problem wasn’t insufficient funds flowing to workers for consumption — the rich consume plenty — but insufficient funds remaining within corporations for the purpose of investment. Just as investment suffered at the end of the postwar boom when the surplus available to capitalist firms was squeezed from below by rising wage claims, it suffered in the past decade when that surplus was squeezed from above by the claims of rentiers. So higher wages might only have made the crisis worse. This argument needs to be taken seriously, unpalatable though it may be. We need to avoid the theodicy of liberal economists, in which the conditions of social justice and the conditions of steady accumulation are always the same.

The Crisis of Neoliberalism is not the last word on the crisis, but it is one of the more convincing efforts to situate it in the longer-term trajectory of capitalism. The most likely outcome of the crisis, they suggest, is a shift in the locus of power back toward managers. Profit maximization will again be subordinated to other objectives. The maintenance of US hegemony will require a “reterritorialization” of production, which will inevitably weaken the position of fincance. There is an inherent conflict between a reassertion of state authority and the borderless class constituted by ownership of financial claims. But there is no such conflict between the interests of particular states, and the class constituted by authority within particular firms. “This is an important factor … strengthening of the comparative position of nonfinancial managers.”

Are we starting to see the dethroning of Finance, a return to the soulful corporation, and a retreat from the universalizing logic of profit? It’s too soon to tell. It’s interesting, though, to see Michael Jensen, the master theorist of the shareholder revolution, sounding a more soulful note. Shareholder value, he recently told The New Yorker, “is the score that shows up on the scoreboard. It’s not the objective… Your life can’t just be about you, or your life will be shit. You see that on Wall Street.” That  business serves a higher calling than Wall Street, is the first item in the managerialist catechism.  We might look at Occupy Wall Street and the growing movement against student debt in the same light: By singling out as the enemy those elites whose power takes directly financial form, they implicitly legitimate power more linked to control of the production process. Strange to think that a movement of anarchists could be heralding a return to power of corporate management. But history can be funny that way.

Work, Unemployment and Aggregate Demand

(I originally posted this as a series of comments on a 2012 post at Steve Randy Waldman’s Interfluidity. In that post, Steve suggested that we should think of redistribution under capitalism as “the poor collectively sell[ing] insurance against riot and revolution, which the rich are happy to pay for with modest quantities of efficiently produced goods.”)


In Theories of Surplus Value, Marx writes:

Assume that the productivity of industry is so advanced that whereas earlier two-thirds of the population were directly engaged in material production, now it is only one-third. Previously 2/3 produced means of subsistence for 3/3; now 1/3 produce for 3/3. Previously 1/3 was net revenue (as distinct from the revenue of the labourers), now 2/3. Leaving [class] contradictions out of account, the nation would now use 1/3 of its time for direct production, where previously it needed 2/3. Equally distributed, all would have 2/3 more time for unproductive labour and leisure. But in capitalist production everything seems and in fact is contradictory… Those two-thirds of the population consist partly of the owners of profit and rent, partly of unproductive labourers (who also, owing to competition, are badly paid). The latter help the former to consume the revenue and give them in return an equivalent in services—or impose their services on them, like the political unproductive labourers. It can be supposed that—with the exception of the horde of flunkeys, the soldiers, sailors, police, lower officials and so on, mistresses, grooms, clowns and jugglers—these unproductive labourers will on the whole have a higher level of culture than the unproductive workers had previously, and in particular that ill-paid artists, musicians, lawyers, physicians, scholars, schoolmasters, inventors, etc., will also have increased in number.

A large and growing share of employment, in other words, is unnecessary from a technical standpoint. It exists because useless jobs are more conducive to social stability than either mass poverty or a social wage. The payments the majority of the population receives for not rioting or rebelling look better when they are dressed up as payment for our work as mistresses, grooms, jugglers — or as yoga instructors or economics professors. This way, people are still dependent on a boss. In a differently organized world, we could dispense with most of these jobs and take the benefits of increased productivity in some combination of shorter hours for productive workers and a shift toward more intrinsically fulfilling (craft-like) forms of productive work.

By starting from here we can think more sensibly about employment and unemployment. From a macroeconomic standpoint, all we need is that expenditure on unproductive labor changes in some rough proportion with income.

From my point of view, the essential facts about employment are (1) As long as the most socially accepted form of claim on the social product is wages for work, work will be found for people, along the lines Marx suggests. (This is not true in poor societies, where a large portion of the poor engage in subsistence labor, of either the traditional or garbage-picking variety.) And (2) In the short run, employment will rise and fall as the rich feel a smaller or a greater need for the insurance-value of financial wealth.

As soon as you being to think about employment in terms of an input of labor to a production process, you’ve taken a wrong turn. We should not try to give supply-based explanations of unemployment, i.e. to show how the allocation of some stock of productive resources by some decision makers could generate unemployment. Unemployment is strictly a phenomenon of aggregate demand.

Unemployment in advanced countries is not characterized by exogenous factor supplies and Leontief-type production functions, where some factors are exhausted leaving an excess supply of their complements.  (The implicit model that lies behind various robots-will-take-all-the-jobs stories.) Unemployment in capitalist economies involves laid-off workers and idle factories; it involves unemployed construction workers and rising homelessness; it involves idle farmworkers and apples rotting on the trees. Unemployment never develops because we need fewer people to make the stuff, but because less stuff is being made. (Again, things are different in poor countries, and in the early stages of industrialization historically.) Unemployment cannot be explained without talking about aggregate demand any more than financial crises can be explained without talking about money and credit. It exists only to the extent that income and expenditure are determined simultaneously.

Unemployment rises when planned money expenditure falls for a given expected money income. Unemployment falls when planned money expenditure rises for a given expected money income. Conditions of production have no (direct) effect one way or the other.

Recognizing that unemployment is an aggregate expenditure phenomenon, not a labor-market phenomenon, helps avoid many errors. For example:

It is natural to think of unemployed people as people not engaged in productive work. This is wrong. The two things have nothing to do with each other. Unemployed people are those whose usual or primary claim on the social product takes the form of a wage, but who are not currently receiving a wage. There are lots of people who do not receive wages but are not unemployed because they have other claims on the social product — children, retirees, students, caregivers, the institutionalized, etc. Almost all of tehse people are capable of productive work, and many are actively engaged in it — caregiving and other forms of household production are essential to society’s continued existence. At the same time, there many people who do receive wages but who are not engaged in productive work; one way to define these is as people whose employment forms part of consumption out of profits or rents.

While there is no relationship between people’s capability for and/or engagement in useful work, on the one hand, and employment, on the other, there is a close link between aggregate expenditure and employment, simply because a very large fraction of expenditure takes the form directly or indirectly of wages, and aggregate wages adjust mainly on the extensive rather than the intensive margin. So when we see people unemployed, we should never ask, why does the production of society’s desired outputs no longer require their labor input? That is a nonsense question that will lead nowhere but confusion. Instead we should ask, why has there been a fall in planned expenditure?

————————

Going beyond the 2012 conversation, two further thoughts:

1. The tendency to talk about unemployment in terms of why some peoples’ labor is no longer needed for production, is symptomatic of a larger confusion. This is the confusion of imagining money claims and payments as a more or less transparent representation of physical and social realities, as opposed to a distinct system that rests on but is substantially independent from underlying social and biological existence. Baseball requires human beings who can throw, hit and run; but the rules of baseball are not simply shorthand for people’s general activity of throwing, hitting and running. Needless to say, economics education assiduously cultivates the mixing-up of the money game with the substrate upon which it is played.

2. It’s natural to think of productive and unproductive labor as two distinct kinds of employment, or at least as opposite poles on a well-defined continuum. Marx usually writes this way. But I don’t think this is right, or at least it becomes less valid as the division of labor becomes more extensive and as productive activity becomes more directly social and involves more coordination of activities widely separated in space and time, and more dependent on the accumulation of scientific and technical knowledge.

Today our collective productive and creative activity requires the compliance of a very large number of people, both active and passive. This post will never be read by anyone if I don’t keep on typing. It will also never be read if the various tasks aren’t performed that are required to operate the servers where this blog is hosted, my internet connection and yours, the various nodes between our computers, the utilities that supply electricity to all the above, and so on. It would not be read if someone hadn’t assembled the computers, and transported and sold them to us; and if someone hadn’t developed the required technologies, step by step as far back as you want to go. It would not be read, or at least not by anyone except me and a few friends, if various people hadn’t linked to this blog over the years, and shared it on social media; and more broadly, if the development of blogs hadn’t gotten people into the habit of reading posts like this. Also, the post won’t be read if someone breaks into my house before before I finish writing it, and steals my laptop or smashes it with a hammer.

All of these steps are necessary to the production of a blog post. Some of them we recognize as “labor” entitled to wages, like whoever is watching the dials at Ravenswood. Some we definitely don’t, like the all-important not-stealing and not-smashing steps. And the status of some, like linking and sharing,  is being renegotiated. Again, a factory only runs if the workers choose to show up rather than stay home in bed; we reserve a share of the factory’s output to reward them for making that choice. It also only runs if passersby choose not to throw bricks through the windows; we don’t reserve any share of the output for them. But if we were going to write down the physical requirements for production to take place, the two choices would enter equivalently.

In a context where a large part of the conditions of production appear as tangible goods with physically rival uses; where the knowledge required for production was not itself produced for the market; where patterns of consumption are stable; where the division of labor is limited; where most cooperation takes the form of arms-length exchanges of goods rather than active coordination of productive activity; where production does not involve large commitments of fixed capital that are vulnerable to disruption; then the idea that there are distinct identifiable factors of production might not be too big a distortion of reality. In that context, splitting claims on the social product into shares attributable to each “factor” is not too disruptive; if anything, it can be a great catalyst for the development of productive capacities. But as the development of capitalism transforms and extends the division of labor, it becomes more and more difficult to separate out which activities that are contributing to a particular production process. So terms like productivity or productive labor lose touch with social reality.

You can find this argument in chapters 13-14 and 32 of Capital Volume 1. The brief discussion in chapter 32 is especially interesting, since Marx makes it clear that it is precisely this process that will bring capitalism to an end — not a fall in the rate of profit, which is never mentioned, nor a violent overthrow, which is explicitly rejected. But that thought will have to wait for another time.

The Puzzle of Profits

Part II of Capital begins with a puzzle: In markets, commodities are supposed to trade only for other commodities of equal value, yet somehow capitalists end up with more value than they start with.

In the world of simple exchange, money is just a convenience for enabling the exchange of commodities: C-M-C is easier to arrange than C-C. But profit-making business is different: the sequence there is M-C-M’. The capitalist enters the market and buys some commodities for a certain sum of money. Later, he sells some commodities, and has a larger sum of money. This increase — from M to M’ — is the whole point of being capitalist. But in a world of free market exchange, how can it exist?

Let’s put some obvious misunderstandings out of the way. There’s nothing mysterious about the fact that people can accomplish things with tools and previously acquired materials that they would be unable to with unaided labor. The problem is not that “capital,” in the sense of a stock of tools and materials, is productive in this sense. To the extent that what appears as “profit” in the national accounts is just the cost of replacing worn-out tools and materials, there’s no puzzle. [1]

The mystery is, how can someone enter the market with money and, after some series of exchanges, exit with more money? In the sequence M-C-M’, how can M’ be greater than M? How can the mere possession of money seemingly allow one to acquire more money, seemingly without end?

Before trying to understand Marx’s answer, let’s consider how non-Marxist economists answer this question.

1. Truck and barter. The most popular answer, among both classical and modern economists, is that the M-C-M’ sequence does not exist. All economic activity is aimed at consumption, market exchange is only intended to acquire specific use-values; when you think you see M-C-M you’re really looking at part of some C-M-C sequence(s). The classical economists are full of blunt statements that the only possible end of exchange is consumption. In today’s economics we find this assumption in the form of the “transversality condition” that says that wealth must go to zero as time goes to infinity. That’s right, it is an axiom in modern economics that accumulation cannot be a goal in itself. Or in the words of Simon Wren-Lewis (my new go-to source for the unexamined conventional wisdom of economists): “It would be stupid to accumulate infinite wealth.” Well OK then!

2. You earned it. Another answer is that the capitalist brings some additional unmeasured commodity to the production process. They are providing not just money M but also management ability, risk-bearing capacity, etc. In this view, if we correctly measured inputs, we would find that  M’=M. In its most blatantly apologetic form this is effectively skewered by comrades Ackerman and Beggs in the current Jacobin. For unincorporated businesses, it is true, it is not straightforward to distinguish between profits proper and the wages of managerial labor, but that can’t account for profits in general, or for the skewed distribution of income across households. If anything, much of what is reported as managerial salaries should probably be called profits. This is a point made in different ways by Piketty and Saez  and Dumenil and Levy; you can also find it offered as straightforward business advice.

3. It was the pictures that got small. The other main classical answer is that profit is the reward for “abstinence” (Senior) or “waiting” (Cassel). (I guess this is also the theory of Bohm-Bawerk and the other Austrians, but I admit I don’t know much about that stuff.) It appears today as a discount rate on future consumption. This invites the same question as the first answer: Is capitalist accumulation really motivated by future consumption? It also invites a second question: In what sense is a good tomorrow less valuable than the same good today? Is the utility derived from a glass of wine in 2013 really less than the utility derived from the same glass consumed in 2012,or 2010, or 1995? (So far this has not been my experience.) The logically consistent answer, if you want to defend profit as the return to waiting, is to say Yes. The capital owner’s pure time preference then represents an objective inferiority of output at a later date compared with the same output at an earlier date.

This is a logically consistent answer to the profits puzzle, and it could even be true with the right assumptions about the probability of an extinction-event asteroid impact/Khmer Rouge takeover/zombie apocalypse. With a sufficiently high estimate of the probability of some such contingency, M’ is really equal to M when discounted appropriately; capitalists aren’t really gaining anything when you take into account their odds of being eaten by zombies and/or suffocated by plastic bag, before they get to enjoy their profits. [2]  But I don’t think anyone wants to really own this point of view — to hold it consistently you must believe that economic activity becomes objectively less able to satisfy human needs as time goes by. [3]

4. Oops, underpaid again. We can take the same “profit as reward for waiting” idea, but instead of seeing a pure time preference as consistent with rational behavior, as modern economists (somehow) do, instead interpret it like the classical economists (including Cassel, whose fascinating Nature and Necessity of Interest I just read), as a psychological or sociological phenomenon. Consumption in the future is objectively identical to the same consumption today, but people for some reason fail to assign it the same subjective value it the same. Either they suffer from a lack of “telescopic facility,” or, in Cassel’s (and Leijonhufvud’s) more sophisticated formulation, the discount rate is a reflection of the human life expectancy: People are not motivated to provide for their descendants beyond their children, and future generations are not around to bargain for themselves. Either way, the outcome is that exchange does not happen at value — production is systematically organized around a higher valuation of goods today than goods tomorrow, even though their actual capacity to provide for satisfaction of human needs is the same. Which implies that workers — who provide labor today for a good tomorrow — are systematically underpaid.

5. Property is theft. The last and simplest possibility is that profits are always just rents. Capitalists and workers start out as just “agents” with their respective “endowments.” By whatever accident of circumstances, the former just end up underpaying the latter. Maybe they are better informed.

We could develop all these points further — and will, I hope, in the future. But I want to move on to (my idea of) Marx’s answer to the puzzle.

One other thing to clear up first: profit versus interest. Both refer to money tomorrow you receive by virtue of possessing money today. The difference is that in the case of profit, you must purchase and sell commodities in between. What is the relationship between these two forms of income? For someone like Cassel, interest has priority; profit is a derived form combining interest with income from managerial skill and/or a rent. For Marx on the other hand, and also for Smith, Ricardo, etc., profit is the primitive and interest is the derived form; interest is redistribution of profits already earned in production. (Smith: “The interest of money is always a derivative revenue, which, if it is not paid from the profit which is made by the use of the money, must be paid from some other source of revenue.”) In other words, are profits an addition to interest, or is interest as a subtraction from profit? For Marx, the latter. The fundamental question is how money profits can arise through exchange of commodities. [4]

Marx gives his answer in chapter four: The capitalist purchases labor-power at its value, but gets the results of the labor expended by that labor-power. The latter exceeds the former. In other words, people are capable of producing more than it takes to reproduce themselves, and that increment is captured by the capitalist. In four hours, you can produce what you need to live on. The next four or six or eight or twelve hours, you are working for The Man.

This is the answer, as Marx gives it. Labor power is paid for at its value. But having purchased labor power, the capitalist now has access to living labor, which can produce more than the the cost of its own reproduction.

I think this is right. But it’s not really a satisfactory answer, is it? It’s formally correct. But what does it mean?

One way of fleshing it out is to ask: Why is it even possible that labor can produce more than the reproduction-costs of labor power? Think of Ricardo’s world. Profits are positive because we have not yet reached the steady state — there are still natural resources available whose more intensive use will yield a surplus beyond the cost of the labor and capital required to use them. The capitalist captures that surplus because capital has the short side of both markets — there is currently excess land going unutilized, and excess labor going unutilized. [5]

Another way: There is something in the production process other than exchange, but which is captured via exchange.

I want to think of it this way: Humanity does have the ability to increase social value of output, or in other words the aggregate capacity to satisfy human needs from nature does in general grow over time. This “growth” happens through our collective creative interchange with nature — it is about pushing into the unknown, a process of discovery — it is not captured beforehand in the market values of commodities.

In a proper market, you cannot exchange a good in your possession for a good with a greater value, that is, with a greater capacity to satisfy human needs in general. (Your own particular needs, yes.) But you can, through creative activity, through a development of your own potential, increase the general level of satisfaction of human needs. The capitalist by buying labor power at its value, is able to capture this creative increment and call it their private property.

Our potential is realized through a creative interchange with nature. It’s not known in advance. What can we do, what can’t we do — we only learn by trying. We push against the world, and discover how the world pushes back, in so doing understand it better and find how it can be reshaped to better suit our needs. Individually or collectively, it’s a process of active discovery.

You as a person can exchange the various things you are in possession of, including your labor power, for other things of equal value. (Though for different use values, which are more desired by you.) But you will also discover, through a process of active learning and struggle, what you are capable of, what are the limits of your powers, what creative work you can do that you cannot fully conceive of now.

Through the process of education, you don’t just acquire something that you understood clearly at the outset. You transform yourself and learn things you didn’t even know you didn’t know. When you do creative work you don’t know what the finished product will be until you’ve finished it. I still — and I hope for the rest of my life — find myself reading economics and having those aha moments where you say, “oh that’s what this debate is all about, I never got it before!” And science and technology above all involve the discovery of new possibilities through a process of active pushing against the limits of our knowledge of the world.

The results of these active process of self-development and exploration form use-values, but they are not commodities. They were not produced for exchange. They were not even known of before they came into being. But while they are not themselves commodities, they are attached to commodities, they cannot be realized except through existing commodities. I may produce in myself, through this process of self-testing, a capacity for musical performance, let’s say. But I cannot realize this capacity without, at least, a sufficient claim on my own time, and probably also concrete use-values in the form of an instrument, an appropriate performance space, etc., and also some claim on the time of others. In this case one can imagine acquiring these things individually, but many — increasingly over time — processes of self-discovery are inherently collective. Science and technology especially. So specifically a discovery that allows cheaper production of an existing commodity, or the creation of a new commodity with new use-values, can only become become concrete in the hands of those who control the process of production of commodities. By purchasing labor power — in the market, at its value — capitalists gain control of the production process. They are thus able to claim the fruits of humanity’s collective self-discovery and interchange with nature as their own private property.

In some cases, this is quite literal. Recall Smith’s argument that one of the great advantages of the division of labor is that it allows specialized workers to discover improved ways of carrying out their tasks. “A great part of the machines made use of in those manufactures in which labour is most subdivided, were originally the inventions of common workmen, who, being each of them employed in some very simple operation, naturally turned their thoughts towards finding out easier and readier methods of performing it.” Who do you think gained the surplus from these inventions? This still happens. Read any good account of work under capitalism, like Barbara Garson’s classic books All the Livelong Day and The Electronic Sweatshop. You’ll find people actively struggling to do their jobs better — the customer service representative who wants to get the caller to the person who can actually solve their problem, the bookshelf installer who wants it to fit in the room just right. The results of these struggles are realized as profits for their employers. But these are exceptional. The normal case today is the large-scale collective process of discovery, which is then privately appropriated. Every new technology draws on a vast history of publicly-available scientific work — sometimes we see this directly as with biomedical research, but even when it’s not so obvious it’s still there. Every Hollywood movie draws on a vast collective project of storytelling, a general collective effort to imbue certain symbols with meaning. Again see this most directly in the movies that draw on folktales and other public-domain work, but it’s true generically.

It is this vast collective effort at transformation of nature and ourselves that allows the value of output to be greater than the value of what existed before it. Without it, we would eventually reach the classical steady state where the exercise of labor could produce no more than the value of the labor power that yielded it. So when Marx says the source of profits is the fact that labor can produce more than the value of labor power, lying behind this is the fact that, due to humanity’s collective creative efforts, we are continuing to find new ways to shape the world to our use.

Capital is coordination before it is tangible means of production. Initially (logically and historically) the capitalist simply occupies a strategic point in exchange between independent producers thanks to the possession of liquid wealth; but as the extension of the division of labor requires more detailed coordination between the separate producers, the capitalist takes over a more direct role in managing production itself. “That a capitalist should command on the field of production, is now as indispensable as that a general should command on the field of battle.”

There is another way of looking at this: in terms of the extension of cooperation and the division of labor, which is realized in and through capitalist production, but in principle is independent of it. I’ll take this up in a following post.

[1] Marx makes this point clearly in his critique of the Gotha program.  Elimination of surplus as such cannot be a goal of socialism.

[2] It would seem that we have enough evidence to rule out a sufficiently high probability of world-ending catastrophe to explain observed interest rates, assuming the minimum possible return on accumulated wealth is zero. But of course in some conceivable circumstances it could be negative — that’s why I include the Khmer Rouge takeover, where your chance of summary execution is presumably positively related to your accumulated wealth. Also, maybe we have reason to think that  catastrophe is more likely in the future than we would naively infer from the past. It would be funny if someone tried to explain interest rates in terms of the doomsday argument.

[3] There has been a lot of discussion of appropriate social discount rates in the context of climate change. But nobody in that debate, as far as I can tell, takes the logical next step of arguing that excessively high discount rates imply a comprehensive market failure, not just with respect to climate change. There is not a special social discount rate for climate, there is an appropriate social discount rate for all future costs and benefits. If market interest rates are not the right tool for weighing current costs against future benefits for climate, they are not the right guide for anything, including the market activities where they currently govern.

[4] Yes, interest exists independently of profits from production, and indeed is much older. Marx recognizes this. But capitalism is not generalized usury.
[5]  And substitution between factors is impossible — Marx’s “iron law of proportions” — or at least limited.

When Do Profits Count?

From today’s New York Times story about the new crop of billion-dollar internet startups:

Most of these chief executives are also veterans of the Internet bubble of the late ’90s, and confess to worries that maybe things are not so different this time. Mr. Tinker… said, “The reality is, I’ve taken $94 million in investors’ money, and we haven’t gone public yet. I feel that responsibility every day.” … 

The nagging fear is that valuations, which are turned into profits only if the company goes public successfully or is bought for a high price, could still plunge.

The cheap pleasure here is gawking at the next stupid Pets.com. (The NYC subway right now is plastered with ads for some company that, wait for it, lets you order pet food online.) But maybe all of this lot will thrive, I have no idea. What I’m interested in is that bolded phrase.

You might naively think that whether a business makes profits is independent of who happens to own it. Profits appear as soon as a commodity is sold for more than the cost of its inputs. So the bolded sentence really only makes sense with the implied addition, profits for venture capitalists or for finance. But in the disgorge-the-cash era, that’s taken as read.

Capitalism is still about M-C-C’-M’, same as it ever as. But C-C’ now includes not just the immediate process of production, but everything related to the firm as a distinct entity. Profits aren’t really profits, under the current regime, as long as the claim on them is tied to a specific business or industry. And the only real capitalists are owners of financial assets.

(Of course what is interesting about the internet economy is the extent to which this logic has not held there. Functionally, profitability for internet companies has meant a relationship of sales to costs that allows them to grow, regardless of the level of payouts to financial claimants. Whether articles like this are a sign of a convergence of Silicon Valley to the dominant culture, or just an example of the bondholder’s-eye view reflexively adopted by the Times, I don’t know.)

EDIT: From the Grundrisse:

It is important to note that wealth as such, i.e. bourgeois wealth, is always expressed to the highest power as exchange value, where it is posited as mediator, as the mediation of the extremes of exchange value and use value themselves. … Within capital itself, one form of it in turn takes up the position of use value against the other as exchange value…: the wholesaler as mediator between manufacturer and retailer, or between manufacturer and agriculturalist, or between different manufacturers; he is the same mediator at a higher level. And in turn, in the same way, the commodity brokers as against the wholesalers. Then the banker as against the industrialists and merchants; the joint-stock company as against simple production; the financier as mediator between the state and bourgeois society, on the highest level. Wealth as such presents itself more distinctly and broadly the further it is removed from direct production and is itself mediated between poles, each of which, considered for itself, is already posited as economic form. Money becomes an end rather than a means; and the higher form of mediation, as capital, everywhere posits the lower as … labour, as merely a source of surplus value. For example, the bill-broker, banker etc. as against the manufacturers and farmers, which are posited in relation to him in the role of labour (of use value); while he posits himself toward them as capital, extraction of surplus value; the wildest form of this, the financier.

Finance stands with respect to productive enterprises as capitalists in general stand with respect to labor (and raw material). So it makes sense that, from finance’s point of view, profit is not realized with the sale of the commodity, but only with the sale of the enterprise itself.

Pain Is the Agenda: The Method in the ECB’s Madness

Krugman is puzzled by the European Central Bank:

I’ve been hearing various attempts to explain the ECB’s utterly bizarre refusal to cut interest rates… The most popular story seems to be that the ECB wants to “hold politicians’ feet to the fire”, letting them know that they won’t get relief unless they do what’s necessary (whatever that is). This really doesn’t make any sense. If we’re talking about enforcing austerity and wage cuts in the periphery, how much more incentive do these economies need?

He is certainly right that if the goal is resolving the crisis, or even price stability, then refusing further rate cuts is mighty strange. But who says those are the goals? His final question is meant to be rhetorical, but it really isn’t. Because the more austerity you want, the more enforcement you need.

I met someone the other day with a fairly senior position at the Greek tax authority; her salary had just been cut by 40 percent. When, outside of an apocalyptic crisis, do you see pay cuts like that? Which, for you or me or Paul Krugman, is an argument to End This Depression Now. But if you are someone who sees pay cuts as the goal, then it could be an argument for not quite yet.

It’s a tenet of liberalism — and a premise of the conversation Krugman is part of — that there are conflicting opinions, but not conflicting interests. But sometimes, when people seem to keep doing things with the wrong outcome, it’s because that’s the outcome they actually want. Paranoid? Conspiracy theory? Maybe. On the other hand, here’s Deutsches Bundsbank president Jens Weidmann:

Relieving stress in the sovereign bond markets eases imminent funding pain but blurs the signal to sovereigns about the precarious state of public finances and the urgent need to act. Macroeconomic imbalances and unsustainable public and private debt in some member states lie at the heart of the sovereign debt crisis. It may appeal to politicians to abstain from unpopular decisions and try to solve problems through monetary accommodation. However, it is up to monetary policymakers to fend off these pressures.

That seems pretty clear. From the perspective of the central banker, resolving the crisis too painlessly would be bad, because that would allow governments to “avoid unpopular decisions.” And it’s true: If there’s something you really want governments to do, but you don’t think they will make the necessary decisions except in a crisis, then it is perfectly rational to prolong the crisis until you see the right decisions being made.

So, what kind of decision are we talking about, exactly? Krugman professes bafflement — “whatever that is” — but it’s not really such a mystery. Here’s an editorial in the FT on the occasion of last summer’s ECB intervention to support the market for Italy’s public debt:

Structural reform is the quid pro quo for the European Central Bank’s purchases last week of Italian government bonds, an action that bought Italy breathing space by driving down yields. … As the government belatedly recognises, boosting Italy’s growth prospects requires a liberalisation of rigid labour markets and a bracing dose of competition in the economy’s sheltered service sectors. This is where the unions and professional bodies must play their part. Susanna Camusso, leader of the CGIL, Italy’s biggest trade union, is threatening to call a general strike to block the proposed labour law reforms. She would be better advised to co-operate with the government and employers… The government’s austerity measures are sure to curtail economic growth in the short run. Only if long overdue structural reforms take root will the pain be worthwhile.

A couple of things worth noting here. First the explicit language of the quid pro quo — the ECB was not just doing what was needed to stabilize the Italian bond market, but offering stabilization as a bargaining chip in order to achieve its other goals. If ECB was selling expansionary policy last year, why be surprised they’re not giving it away for free today? Note also the suggestion that a sacrifice of short-term output is potentially worthwhile — this isn’t some flimflam about expansionary austerity, but an acknowledgement that expansion is being give up to achieve some other goal. And third, that other goal: Everything mentioned is labor market reform, it’s all about concessions by labor (including professionals). No mention of more efficient public services, better regulation of the financial system, or anything like that.

The FT editorialist is accurately presenting the ECB’s view. My old teacher Jerry Epstein has a good summary at TripleCrisis of the conditions for intervention; among other things, the ECB demanded “full liberalisation of local public services…. particularly… the provision of local services through large scale privatizations”; “reform [of] the collective wage bargaining system … to tailor wages and working conditions to firms’ specific needs…”;  “thorough review of the rules regulating the hiring and dismissal of employees”; and cuts to private as well as public pensions, “making more stringent the eligibility criteria for seniority pensions” and raising the retirement age of women in the private sector. Privatization, weaker unions, more employer control over hiring and firing, skimpier pensions. This is well beyond what we normally think of as the remit of a central bank.

So what Krugman presents as a vague, speculative story about the ECB’s motives — that they want to hold politicians’ feet to the fire — is, on the contrary, exactly what they say they are doing.

It’s true that the conditions imposed by the ECB on Italy and Greece were in the context of programs relating specifically to those countries’ public debt, while here we are talking about a rate cut. But there’s no fundamental difference — cutting rates and buying bonds are two ways of describing the same basic policy. If there’s conditions for one, we should expect conditions for the other, and in fact we find the same “quid pro quo” language is being used now as then.

Here’s a banker in the FT:

The future of Europe will therefore be determined by the interests of the ECB. Self-preservation suggests that it will prevent complete collapse. If necessary, it will overrule Germany to do this, as the longer-term refinancing operations and government bond purchase programme suggest. But self-preservation and preventing collapse do not amount to genuine cyclical relief and policy stimulus. Indeed, the ECB appears to believe that in addition to price stability it has a mandate to impose structural reform. To this extent, cyclical pain is part of its agenda.

Again, there’s nothing irrational about this. If you really believe that structural reform is vital, and that democratic governments won’t carry it out except under the pressure of a crisis, then what would be irrational would be to relieve the crisis before the reforms are carried out. In this context, an “irrational” moralism can be an advantage. While one can take a hard line in negotiations and still be ready to blink if the costs of non-agreement get too high, it’s best if the other side believes that you’ll blow it all up if you don’t get what you want.  Fiat justitia et pereat mundus, says Martin Wolf, is a dangerous motto. Yes; but it’s a strong negotiating position.

But this invites a question: Why does the ECB regard labor market liberalization (aka structural reform) as part of its mandate? Or perhaps more precisely, when the ECB negotiates with national governments, on whose behalf is it negotiating?

The answer the ECB itself might give is, society as a whole. After all, this is the consensus view of central banks’ role. Elected governments are subject to time inconsistency, or are captured by rent seekers, or just don’t work, so an “independent” body is needed to take the long view. It’s never been clear why this should apply only to monetary policy, and in fact there’s a well-established liberal view that the independent central bank model should be extended to other areas of policy. Alan Blinder:

We have drawn the line in the wrong place, leaving too many policy decisions in the realm of politics and too few in the realm of technocracy. … the argument for the Fed’s independence applies just as forcefully to many other areas of government policy. Many policy decisions require complex technical judgments and have consequences that stretch into the distant future. Think of decisions on health policy (should we spend more on cancer or aids research?), tax policy (should we reduce taxes on capital gains?), or environmental policy (how should we cope with damage to the ozone layer?). Yet in such cases, elected politicians make the key decisions. Why should monetary policy be different? … The justification for central bank independence is valid. Perhaps the model should be extended to other arenas. … The tax system would surely be simpler, fairer, and more efficient if … left to an independent technical body like the Federal Reserve rather than to congressional committees.

I’m sure there are plenty of people at the ECB who think along the same lines as the former Fed Vice-Chair. Indeed, that central banks want what’s best for everyone is practically an axiom of modern economics. Still, it’s funny, isn’t it, that “structural reform” so consistently turns out to mean lower wages?

Martin Wolf’s stuff on the European crisis has been essential. But it has one blind spot: The only conflicts he sees are between nations. What perplexes him is “the riddle of German self-interest.” But maybe the answer to the riddle is that national interests are not the only ones in play.

It’s hard not to think here of Perry Anderson’s thesis, developed (alongside other themes) in The New Old World, that the EU project is fundamentally a response by European elites to their inability to roll back social democracy at the national level. The new supra-national institutions of the EU have allowed them to bypass political cultures that remain stubbornly (if incompletely) egalitarian and solidaristic. In Alain Supiot’s summary:

In Anderson’s view, the European project has engendered neither a federation nor an intergovernmental organization; rather it is the most fully realized form of Hayek’s ultraliberal ‘catallaxy’. … Like a secular version of faith in divine providence, belief in the spontaneous order of the markets entails a desire to protect it from the untimely interventions of people seeking ‘a just distribution’ which, according to Hayek, is nothing more than ‘an atavism, based on primordial emotions’. Hence the need to ‘dethrone the political’ by means of constitutional steps which create ‘a functioning market in which nobody can conclusively determine how well-off particular groups or individuals will be’. In other words, it is necessary to put the division of labour and the distribution of its fruits beyond the reach of the electorate. This is the dream that the European institutions have turned into a reality. Beneath the chaste veil of what is conventionally known as the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ lies a denial of democracy.

Jerry Epstein puts it more bluntly. The ECB’s insistence on structural reform “represents a cynical raw power calculus to destroy worker and citizen protections  without any real belief in the underlying neo-liberal economics they use to justify it.” (If you prefer your political economy in audiovisual form, he has a video talking about this stuff.)

This kind of language makes people uncomfortable. Rather than acknowledge that the behavior of people in power could represent a particular interest — let alone that of the top against the bottom, or capital against labor — much better to throw your hands up and profess bafflement: their choices are “bizarre,” a “riddle.” This isn’t, let’s be clear, a personal failing. If you or I occupied the same kind of positions as Krugman or Wolf, we’d be subject to the same constraints. And I anyway don’t want to find myself talking to no one but a handful of grumpy old Marxists.

But on the other hand, as Doug Henwood likes to quote our late friend Bob Fitch, “vulgar Marxism explains 90 percent of what happens in the world.” And then, I keep looking back through FT articles on the crisis, and finding stuff like this:

The central bank has long called for eurozone economies to press ahead with structural reforms. That the ‘E’ in EMU, or Economic and Monetary Union, has not occurred is a complaint often voiced by ECB officials. On this score, the central bank has managed to win an important concession in forcing Italy to sign up to liberalising its economy. Some may see this as a pyrrhic victory for the damage that the bond purchases have done to the central bank’s independence. But there was a significant threat to stability if the central bank did not act. …That Mr Trichet, always among the more politically savvy of central bankers, managed to get some concessions on structural reform was all that could be hoped for.

One has to wonder: What does it mean for the ECB to “win an important concession” from an elected government? Who is it winning the concession for? And if the problem with the ECB is just an ideological fixation on its inflation-fighting credibility, why would it be willing to sacrifice some of that credibility to advance this other goal?

It’s hard to suppress a lingering suppression that central bankers are, after all, bankers. And then you think, isn’t there an important sense in which finance embodies the interests of the capitalist class as a whole? (In an anodyne way, this is even sort of what its conventional capital-allocation function means) You wonder if the only reason Karl Marx called “the modern executive is a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie,” is that central banks didn’t yet exist.

Imagine you’re a European capitalist, or business owner if you prefer the sound of that. You look at the United States and see the promised land. Employment at will — imagine, no laws limiting your ability to fire whoever you want. Private pensions, gone. Unions almost gone, strikes a thing of the past. Meanwhile, in 2002, 95 out of every 1,000 workers in the Euro area — nearly ten percent — was on strike at some point during the year. (In Spain, it was 270 out of every 1,000. In Italy, over 300.) And of course there’s the vastly greater share of income going to your American peers. Look at it from their point of view: Why wouldn’t they want what their American cousins have?

It seems to me that what would really be bizarre, would be if European capitalists did not see the crisis as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They’d be crazy — they’d be betraying their own interests — if, given the ECB’s suddenly increased power vis-a-vis national governments, they didn’t insist that it extract all the concessions it can.

Isn’t that what they’re doing? Moreover, isn’t it what they say they’re doing? When the “Global Head of Market Economics” at the world’s biggest bank says that the ECB should only cut rates “as part of a quid pro quo with governments agreeing to more far-reaching structural reform,” what do you think he means?

What Do Bosses Want?

The New York Times paywall is here. Felix Salmon has the details, and what looks like the definitive critique:

What does all this mean for the New York Times Company? I can’t see how it’s good. The paywall is certainly being set high enough that a lot of regular readers will not subscribe. These are readers who would normally link to the NYT from their blogs, who would tweet NYT articles, who would post those articles on Facebook, and so on. As a result, not only will traffic from these readers decline, but so will all their referral traffic, too. The NYT makes more than $300 million a year in digital ad revenue, so even a modest decline in pageviews, relative to what the site could have generated sans paywall, can mean many millions of dollars foregone. On top of that, the paywall itself cost somewhere over $40 million to develop.

Against all that, how much revenue will the paywall bring in?… extra revenues of $24 million per year.

$24 million is a minuscule amount for the New York Times company as a whole; it’s dwarfed not only by total revenues but even by those total digital advertising revenues of more than $300 million a year. … So by my back-of-the-envelope math, the paywall won’t even cover its own development costs for a good two years, and beyond that will never generate enough money to really make a difference to NYTCo revenues. … I just can’t see how this move makes any kind of financial sense for the NYT. The upside is limited; the downside is that it ceases to be the paper of record for the world. Who would take that bet?

(For the record, in the past couple weeks I devoted a few idle moments to considering just how much I would pay for digital access to the NYT, and decided that $15 a month was just about my upper limit. But in fact I won’t pay it, since top news stories will continue to be free on the iPhone.)

What makes this bad decision so interesting is how many other companies seem to make the same kind of bad decisions. And in particular, how completely they overlook the value of the kind of free marketing and brand development that Salmon describes in the first paragraph.

For instance, here’s an interesting new working paper by Yi Qian on the effect of counterfeit goods on clothing brands, which finds

heterogeneous effects of counterfeit entry on sales of authentic products of three quality tiers. In particular, counterfeits have both advertising effects for the brand and substitution effects for authentic products. The advertising effect dominates substitution effect for high-end authentic product sales, and the substitution effect outweighs advertising effect for low-end product sales.

In other words, when someone buys a rip-off pair of Manohlo Blahniks, they may be foregoing a purchase of an authentic pair. But maybe not. And either way, their visible endorsement of the brand increases its appeal to others in a way that the company would otherwise have to spend scarce advertising dollars to achieve. Not surprising, it’s the high-end brands that benefit on net from counterfeiters, since purchasers of counterfeit goods are less likely to be able to afford the real thing and the brand identity is more valuable. This is consistent with other research I’ve seen suggesting that in some cases, the advertising effect outweighs the substitution effect even at the level of the individual consumer — buying a counterfeit handbag (or illegally downloading a piece of music, or whatever) makes a person more likely to subsequently buy that item legally.

(Qian is also co-author of this fascinating survey of the economics of counterfeiting, which identifies a remarkably broad range of theoretical and empirical cases where laxer IP protections turn out to benefit sellers. For instance, there’s evidence that academic journals were able to charge higher prices as a result of the widespread availability of photocopiers starting in the 1980s, because the greater value of journals to subscribers who were now able to make copies of articles outweighed the loss of sales to people who read the copies.)

Sellers of branded goods can’t be unaware of this research, or at least of these general effects. Yet we see sellers of branded goods going to ridiculous lengths to strengthen IP proections, even sellers of high-end goods who are least likely to be harmed by infringement. In effect, these companies, like the New York Times, are going to great lengths to deprive themselves of free advertising. It’s almost like they put a higher value on controlling their brand, than on profiting from it.

Which they probably do.

It makes one think about the Marxist literature on the labor process, and the idea that for capitalists, maximizing the surplus they extract from workers is secondary to maintaining the conditions under which surplus can be extracted at all. This is Stephen Marglin’s argument in his classic article What Do Bosses Do? — that the factory system was not initially adopted because it was any more technically efficient than alternative forms of worker-controlled production, but because of the strategic leverage it gave the owner of capital. He quotes a contemporary article in The Spectator observing that worker-managed cooperatives were competitive with capitalist enterprises:

Associations of workmmen could manage shops, mills and all forms of industry with success, and the immensely improved the conditions of the men, but then they did not leave a clear place for the masters. That was a defect…

Similarly, bloggers and social media may successfully generate immense traffic for the Times, and counterfeiters may successfully build the value of the brands they rip off; but the owners of these properties may not be (only) confused when they object, since this uncontrolled activity has a less of a clear place for the masters.

As Kalecki famously said,

“Discipline in the factories” and “political stability” are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound.

Profits come second to power. So when the results of productive labor aren’t appropriated as private property, the class instinct of the bosses of the information industries must tell them this is unsound, even if it’s more immediately profitable than the alternative. As Kalecki says in the same essay, “The fundamentals of capitalist ethics require that ‘you shall earn your bread in sweat’ — unless you happen to have private means.” That, I suspect, is fundamentally why the Sulzbergers et al. object to free ice cream, even when they can make more money by giving it away than by selling it.