Monday, June 2, 2014

Artificial Scarcity and the Lopsided Economist

Jared Bernstein has launched a vital conversation around the question, "why is capital so much stronger than labor?" In his first post, Jared reflects, experience as a policy wonk and economist in government has led me to believe that economics, as currently practiced, is part of the problem. Not the discipline itself, which historically has been flexible enough to offer wide ranging and useful tools for analyzing and solving economic problems. I’m talking instead about the way it interacts with wealth and power today to support capital and hamstring labor.
Part 2 of "why is capital so much stronger than labor?" is titled r > g meets c > l
Sandwichman comments on c > l as follows:

I'd like to propose substituting for the word "inequality," the word "lopsided." Inequality is their word and it carries with it a customary whiff of distinction, justified by merit. The connotation is undeserved but has been instituted through sheer repetition and amplification. Wealth and income are not merely unequal, they are literally lopsided: one side has been lopped off.

One side of economic analysis has been lopped off, too. It is the side that deals with the inherent imbalance, the lopsidedness. A lopsided economics makes a lopsided economy even more so.

But let me be more specific. As John R. Commons, pointed out, efficiency and scarcity are complements as well as substitutes. Lionel Robbins's famous definition of economics as "the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses" implicitly (albeit ambiguously) posits the scarcity of the means as given and thus evades the crucial complication of artificial scarcity.

There has been in economics a long-lasting and lopsided preoccupation with one kind of artificial scarcity: the restriction of output by workers. Every once in a while a renegade economist such as Veblen looks directly into this lopsidedness and debunks it but the prejudice trundles on as if nothing had happened. As Warren Samuels noted 20 years ago, the contemporary "efficiency wage" literature is rife with pejorative anti-worker bias. Google scholar shows 10 results for Samuels's critique (four of them in articles by David Spencer) compared to 4589 results for Shapiro and Stiglitz's article on "shirking" and efficiency wages.

And just what IS a wage anyway? It is a ratio. It is a rate of remuneration PER period of time or unit of output. By far the most common form of wages today are time wages.What would one think of an analysis of capital that analyzed the return without reference to the principal? Yet contemporary economics treats the supply of hours of labor as unproblematically generated by workers' preferences for leisure or income. There is NO theoretical foundation for this treatment. There is NO empirical foundation for it. The "leisure device" has been shown to be utterly unfounded and yet it forms the basis of the systematic exclusion from contemporary economic theorizing of the question of the efficiency of the given hours of work.

Again, the "New Keynesian" efficiency wage hypothesis literature provides a stark illustration of this lopsided exclusion. Bob LaJeunesse's 1999 Challenge article on the efficiency week garnered ONE citation and even that by an author who declined to pursue the analysis.

Concern with the efficiency of the hours of labor, as well as the rate of pay for those hours is not just some quaint institutionalist (or Marxist) hobby horse. Marshall's neoclassical analysis of an "efficiency wage" and that of his star pupils, Pigou and Chapman, was influenced both directly and indirectly by Thomas Brassey's Work and Wages, which focused explicitly on the productivity effects of variations in the hours of labor. The neo-Walrasian, mathematical modelers have opted for a pre-marginalist doctrine, in effect resurrecting on the "revealed preference" supply side the defunct wages-fund doctrine that was long ago discredited and disavowed as an explanation of the demand for labor.

In conclusion, lopsided outcomes in income and wealth are hardly a surprise in an economic system in which the power to restrict output and thus to maintain a profitable advantage through artificial scarcity is itself lopsided. A lopsided economics that treats the entrepreneur as the epitome of efficiency and workers as shirkers is unlikely to disclose the sources of income and wealth lopsidedness. The lopsided treatment of the wage as somehow immune to operations on the divisor side of the ratio is equally unlikely to consider the full range of appropriate remedies for the lopsidedness of income and wealth.

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