Sunday, April 27, 2014

Inequality and Class Struggle

In his discussion of the Cobb-Douglas production function and the presumed stability of the capital/labor income split, Thomas Piketty references the work of "the young German historian and economist Jürgen Kuczynski" (p. 219). Readers of Capital in the 21st Century may be interested to learn a bit more about this intriguing character, whom Marc Linder profiled in a 1994 monograph, "From Surplus Value to Unit Labor Costs: The Bourgeoisification of a Communist Conspiracy" published in the book, Labor Statistics and Class Struggle.

In the mid-1920s, the American Federation of Labor adopted a new wage policy linking wage demands to productivity gains, which Linder described as "strongly reminiscent of the reasoning that Marx had used in an address to the General Council of the First International in 1865 to refute the claims of one of its members, a carpenter named John Weston, that a general increase of wage rates did not benefit the working class." An excerpt from Linder's book:
The reason that Green’s “Modern Wage Policy” Declaration seemed so curiously suggestive of Marx’s own popularization of the theory of exploitation is that it was, implausibly enough, written by a German Marxist mole in the AFL. That person, who was also responsible for developing the data on relative wages for the AFL, and thus for the organization’s conversion to a crypto-Marxist strategy of holding the line on the rate of surplus value, was twenty-two year-old Jürgen Kuczynski… 
In September 1926… Kuczynski departed for the United States, where his father, who spent half of each year at the Brookings Institution and as late as 1931 was a member of its advisory council, had secured him a stipend at the short-lived Robert Brookings Graduate School of Economics and Government. Through his father, Kuczynski again came into social contact with many scholarly and political leaders in Washington, D.C., including Justice Brandeis, a distant relative. 
Shortly before his departure for the United States, Kuczynski was struck by Paul Douglas’s recent article comparing the movements of real wages, production, and productivity. Although Douglas did not draw the parallel or discuss its significance, he presented data showing that from 1899 to 1923, the real earnings of manufacturing wage-earners had risen 28 per cent whereas their per capita output or productivity had increased 52 per cent. Kuczynski then published a piece in the Finanzpolitische Korrespondenz, which his father edited, in which he methodologically went a step beyond Douglas: by dividing the index of real wages by the index of production, he generated an index of “the share of industrial workers in the total product of industry.” This “social standard of living,” which Kuczynski conceded was very rough and in need of refinements, had declined by 50 per cent between the turn of the century and World War I and remained stagnant thereafter. 
In the course of re-reading Douglas on the boat to the United States, a “fundamental idea” dawned on Kuczynski -- namely, that the relationship between production and real wages was nothing but Marx’s idea of relative wages. Whereas only bourgeois theorists and especially social-democratic revisionists contested Marx’s ‘“theory of absolute immiseration,’” relative immiseration seemed, once the absolute variant was accepted, self-explanatory. The reason that no one had thought of calculating relative wages was the lack of relevant data. When Kuczynski realized on the boat that statistics recently published in the United States had made such calculations possible, he arrived in Washington with his “tongue hanging out.” In November 1926, two months after his arrival, he published two more articles in his father’s journal on relative wages, which were both suffused with a primitive version of ameliorative underconsumptionism. In one, expressly referring to Marx’s distinction between real and social standards of living, he loosely defined the latter as (wage-working) consumers’ share of the national product, In the other he presented the first fruits of his calculations of relative wages in several industries as the result of dividing real wages (measured both by a cost of living index and an index of wholesale prices of the particular industry) by productivity. In 1927 and 1928, Kuczynski published additional articles on the same subject in Germany until the relative wage “had again found its place as a category of Marxist doctrine." 
While refurbishing Marxism, Kuczynski also performed a much more spectacular feat: ventriloquizing President Green. Although Frey’s efforts at the 1925 AFL convention had “given a great movement a great idea,” Kuczynski was disappointed that the Federation had “forgotten” about computing the worker’s share of the product or implementing the new principle. To be sure, Kuczynski overstated his own and underestimated the AFL’s initiative: immediately after the Atlantic City convention, The New York Times had published an interview with Green in which he anticipated by a year Kuczynski’s call for a workers’ share index. Specifically, Green stated that the AFL should do research to show workers and the public “how the purchasing power of wages has varied . . . and what relation that curve bears to the output per worker.”

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