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.

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.

What Comes Before Capital?

“The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.'”

Everyone knows that line. If your intellectual formation is like mine, it has approximately the same status as “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

The rabbis, I’m told, used to like to point out that in Hebrew the first letter of “In the beginning…” looks like a box with three sides, and only one opening. This was to convey the message, don’t ask what happened before, or what might be happening somewhere else. The only story we care about starts here.

We all have our rabbis. But we keep asking anyway, what comes before? What comes before that first sentence of Capital, what’s happening elsewhere? What form does wealth (claims on the good life) take in societies where the capitalist mode of production doesn’t prevail? And apart from how it appears, or presents itself, what can we say about what it really is?

I think the biggest problem with how people read Capital is, they don’t take the subtitle seriously: It really is a “critique of political economy.” There’s an overarching irony, the whole thing is written under the sign of the hypothetical. (In general, I think this irony is one of the most important, and hardest, things that students have to learn in any field.) The whole book is written to show that even if everything Ricardo said was true, capitalism would still be an unjust and inhumane (and unstable, though that doesn’t come til later) economic system. But that’s not the same as saying that everything Ricardo says really is true. In my opinion — people I respect disagree — everything Marx says about the Labor Theory of Value is preceded by an implicit “even if…” It shouldn’t be interpreted as a set of positive claims about the world.

So what does Marx positively believe? For this, I think we have to turn to the early writings. I know these are deep waters, on which I am innocently paddling about in my little water wings. But in my opinion, the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 are the essential “before” to Capital.

In Capital, exploitation is defined in terms of the share of the product (already quantifiable; the transformation of the infinitely heterogeneous content of human activity into a mass of commodities has already taken place) to which claims accrue as a result of wage labor. But in the Manuscripts, he says

A forcing-up of wages (disregarding all other difficulties, including the fact that it would only be by force, too, that the higher wages, being an anomaly, could be maintained) would … be nothing but better payment for the slave, and would not conquer either for the worker or for labour their human status and dignity.

Or equivalently, “The alienation of the product of labour merely summarizes the alienation in the work activity itself.” What’s important is exhausting one’s creative powers on alien ends. How many channels you have on tv afterward doesn’t matter.

Alienated labor means (to take various of Marx’s definitions):  “the work is external to the worker”; the worker “does not fulfill himself in his work”; the worker “does not develop freely his mental and physical energies”; “work is not voluntary, but imposed, forced labour”; work “is not the satisfaction of a need, but a means for satisfying other needs”; the worker “does not belong to himself but to another person.” This is the non-quantifiable fact about life under life under capitalism for which questions about the distribution of commodities are a stand-in. Everything that happens in Capital, happens after this.

“The Labouring Classes Should Have a Taste for Comforts and Enjoyments”

McDonald’s model budget for its minimum-wage employees — along with the smug, fatuous, those-people-aren’t-like-us-dear defenses of it — has been the target of well-deserved scorn.

This kind of thing has been around forever (or at least as long as capitalism). Two hundred years ago, liberal reformers offered “Promoting Sobriety and Frugality, and an Abhorrence of Gaming”as the solution to the collapse of wages following the Napoleonic wars, and gave workers instruction on “the use of roasted wheat as a substitute for coffee.” You could make an endless list of these helpful suggestions to the poor to better manage their poverty.

To be fair, liberals today do mostly see this stuff as, at best, an effort by low-wage employers to divert attention from their own compensation policies to the personal responsibility of their workers. And at worst, when the budget help includes assistance enrolling in Medicaid or the EITC, as a way of getting the public to subsidize low-wage employment.

But there’s a nagging sense in these conversations that, disingenuous as McDonald’s is here, still, at the end of the day, frugality, living within one’s means, is a virtue; that the ability to prioritize expenses and make a budget is a useful skill to have. Against that view, here’s Ricardo on wages:

It is not to be understood that the natural price of labour, estimated even in food and necessaries, is absolutely fixed and constant. … It essentially depends on the habits and customs of the people. An English labourer would consider his wages under their natural rate, and too scanty to support a family, if they enabled him to purchase no other food than potatoes, and to live in no better habitation than a mud cabin; yet these moderate demands of nature are often deemed sufficient in countries where ‘man’s life is cheap’, and his wants easily satisfied. Many of the conveniences now enjoyed in an English cottage, would have been thought luxuries at an earlier period of our history. 

The friends of humanity cannot but wish that in all countries the labouring classes should have a taste for comforts and enjoyments, and that they should be stimulated by all legal means in their exertions to procure them. … In those countries, where the labouring classes have the fewest wants, and are contented with the cheapest food, the people are exposed to the greatest vicissitudes and miseries.

In a world where the price of labor power depends on its cost, there’s no benefit to workers from budgeting responsibly, from learning to get by on less. The less people can live on, the lower wages will be. On the other hand, to the extent that former luxuries — a decent car, some nice clothes, dinner out once in a while, whatever consumer electronics item the scolds are going on about now — come to be seen as necessities, such that it’s not worth putting up with the bullshit of a job if you still can’t afford them, then wages will have to rise enough to cover that too.

For much of the 20th century, it seemed like we had left Ricardo’s world behind. Among economists, it became a well-established stylized fact that it’s the wage share, not the real wage that is relatively fixed. To even sympathetic critics of Marx, the failure of real wages to gravitate toward a (socially determined) subsistence level looked like a major departure of modern economies from the capitalism he described.

These days, though, the world is looking more Ricardian. For the majority of workers without credentials or other shelter from the logic of the labor market, real wages look less like a technologically-fixed share of output than the minimum necessary to keep people participating in wage labor at all. In the subsistence-wage world of industrializing Britain, workers’ “frugality, discipline or acquisitive virtues brought profit to their masters rather than success to themselves.”  Conversely, in that world, which may also be our world, profligacy, waste and irresponsibility could be a kind of solidarity.

I would never presume to tell someone surviving on a minimum-wage paycheck how to live their life. I know that being poor is incredibly hard work, in a way that those of us who haven’t experienced it can hardly imagine.  But as a friend of humanity, I do worry that the biggest danger isn’t that people can’t live on the minimum wage, but that they can. In which case we’re all better off if McDonald’s employees throw the bosses’ helpful budget advice away.


Keith Richards wrote a book. A month ago, at least, you could find it on the front shelf of the Barnes & Noble, next to the Glenn Beck.

I haven’t read the book, but I did read David Remnick’s review in The New Yorker. I was struck by this bit:

In the teen-aged imagination, the virtue of being a member of the band is that you end the day in the sack with the partner, or partners, of your choice. Not so, Richards says: “You might be having a swim or screwing the old lady, but somewhere in the back of the mind, you’re thinking about this chord sequence or something related to a song. No matter what the hell’s going on.”

One could preach a whole sermon on that text. To begin with, that’s what it is to be an artist, isn’t it? It’s work, hard work, and you’re always working. Or as the man says:

Labour time cannot remain the abstract antithesis to free time in which it appears from the perspective of bourgeois economy. … Labour becomes the individual’s self-realization, [but this] in no way means that it becomes mere fun, mere amusement, as Fourier with grisette-like naivete, conceives it. Really free working, e.g. composing, is at the same time precisely the most damned serious, the most intense exertion.

And there’s nothing more satisfying than that exertion. That’s what Keith Richards says, anyway. All the varieties of consumption the world can offer — and it offers them all to the rock star — can’t compete with the need to produce, in this case to produce music. The development of capitalism has certainly increased the number of of people who can get some of the satisfactions of consuming like Keith Richards, but has it increased the number who get the satisfaction of producing like him, freely and creatively?

This need to be doing productive work, and to do one’s work well, what Michelet called “the professional conscience” is, it seems to me, one of the most fundamental but one of the most neglected human drives. You can hear it from Richards. You can hear it from people like the stonemason interviewed in Studs Terkel’s Working:

There’s not a house in this country that I built that I don’t look at every time I go by. I can set here now and actually in my mind see so many you wouldn’t believe. If there’s one stone in there crooked, I know where it’s at and I never forget it. Maybe 30 years, I’ll know a place where I should have took that stone out and redone it but I didn’t. I still notice it. The people who live there might not notice it, but I notice it. I never pass that house that I don’t think of it …. My work, I can see what I did the first day I started. All my work is set right out there in the open and I can look at it as I go by. It’s something I can see the rest of my life. Forty years ago, the first blocks I ever laid in my life, when I was 17 years old. I never go through Eureka that I don’t look thataway. It’s always there. Immortality as far as we’re concerned

Or you can hear it from the sailor Stanislav in B. Traven’s The Death Ship, explaining why he took a grueling, barely-paid job as a stoker on the titular vessel when he was living comfortably as a petty criminal on land:

You get awfully tired and bored of that kind of business. There is something which is not true about the whole thing. And you feel it, see? … You want to do something. You wish to be useful. I do not mean that silly stuff about man’s duty. That’s bunk. There is in yourself that which is driving you on to do something worth while. Not all the time hanging on like a bum… It is that you want to create something, to help things going.

This is what liberals, who think that human wellbeing consists in the consumption of goods and services, cannot understand. Capitalism piles up consumer goods but deprives more and more of us of the satisfaction of genuine work. A good trade, when it’s a question of meeting basic needs. But once they are met — and they are met; they are finite, tho liberals, from Mill to DeLong, deny it — all the bacchanals in the world are no substitute for the knowledge that one has produced something worthwhile by one’s own free efforts. Or as that other guy said, It’s not that which goes into the mouth, but that which comes out of it, that defiles people. Or that exalts them.

EDIT: Thanks to (I think) Chris Mealy, this has quickly become the most-read ever post on Slackwire. If you like it, you might also appreciate this one and this one.