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Kunkel on David Harvey and Robert Brenner: Demand, Profits and Employment

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 19th May 2014

The link between demand and profits, and consequently employment, is visible in the works of the classical economists and Marx. In this blog post, we set out the link between these variables by way of assessing the contributions of David Harvey and Robert Brenner, as narrated and presented by Benjamin Kunkel in his 2014 collection of essays, all previously published – Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Recent Crisis (and not on the basis of Harvey’s and Brenner’s original texts).

Karl Marx has already presented us with the possible reasons for the occurrence of crises in capitalist economies. Kunkel treats these crises as profitability crises (pp. 34-6); they can occur because of (1) profit squeeze, (2) a rising organic composition of capital, and (3) underconsumption. A capitalist crisis causes activity levels to drop and results in wide-spread unemployment. The three factors mentioned above reduce the profits of capitalists, consequently affecting their decision to produce and therefore adversely affecting their decisions to employ workers and purchase capital goods. The first – a profit squeeze, is self-explanatory, but its causes need not be. A rise in real wages, ceteris paribus, leads to a decline in the rate of profit. The organic composition of capital, according to Marx, refers to the ratio between constant capital and variable capital. Constant capital refers to the investment expenditure on plant, machinery, tools and other constant/fixed capital. Variable capital refers to the investment expenditure relating to the workers – wage costs, training costs and the like. When the ratio of constant to variable capital rises, or equivalently, when the organic composition of capital rises, the rate of profit (the ratio between profits and capital advanced) falls. The third cause is underconsumption, by workers. This occurs, by definition, since the value of the real wage is less than the value they add to the commodity. In Marxian terms, this difference measures the surplus-value that the capitalists extract from the workers.

I

Strong bargaining power on the side of the workers can generate a rise in the real wages; although, note that the terms of agreement are usually set in money wages. The rising organic composition of capital is not a law, but a contingent proposition. As for underconsumption, if workers’ wages are just sufficient for their survival, it can result in goods lying unsold and therefore affect capitalist profits. To put it differently, there arises a gap between aggregate supply and aggregate demand. This, according to Harvey, places a ‘limit to capital’.

What can possibly eliminate underconsumption, a facet of capitalism, a consequence of positive capitalist profits and a cause of economic crisis? Harvey points out that it is credit which eliminates this cause, at least, temporarily.

‘Any increase in the flow of credit to housing construction, for example, is of little avail today without a parallel increase in the flow of mortgage finance to facilitate housing purchases. Credit can be used to accelerate production and consumption simultaneously.’

(Harvey; as quoted on p. 32)

But, Kunkel cautions us that even if credit can fund the required aggregate demand, changes in income distribution brought about by the struggle between workers and capitalists will affect the aggregate equilibrium, and will render it unstable.

‘If there exists a theoretical possibility of attaining an ideal proportion, from the standpoint of balanced growth, between the amount of total social income to be reinvested in production and the amount to be spent on consumption, and if at the same time the credit system could serve to maintain this ratio of profits to wages in perpetuity, the antagonistic nature of class society nevertheless prevents such a balance from being struck except occasionally and by accident, to be immediately upset by any advantage gained by labor or, more likely, by capital.’ (p. 37)

It is not entirely clear what mechanisms and processes Kunkel is referring to when he makes the above claim about income distribution rendering the equilibrium unstable. Indeed, if the available credit is not sufficient to counter the depressed wages and high profits, the aggregate equilibrium will be unstable.

Another route through which capitalist crisis can be postponed is via long-term infrastructural projects. ‘Overaccumulated capital, whether originating as income from production or as the bank overdrafts that unleash fictitious values, can put off any immediate crisis of profitability by being drawn off into long-term infrastructural projects, in an operation Harvey calls a “spatio-temporal fix”’ (p. 39). Here again, it is contingent on the extent to which the workers gain from the surplus generated by these projects, both in the short and long-term. For example, the employment guarantee programme in India creates infrastructure as well as provides employment and wage income.

‘So what then are the “limits to capital”’ (p. 41)? ‘Keynesians complain of an insufficiency of aggregate demand, restraining investment. The Marxist will simply add that this bespeaks inadequate wages, in the index of a class struggle going the way of owners rather than workers’ (p. 43). Inadequate wages, as previously indicated, does generate demand deficiency. To that extent, Marx’s and Keynes’s account of capitalist crises are very similar.

Kunkel points out the role of environmental degradation, a consequence of capitalist drive for profits, in capitalist crises. ‘Already three-concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere, loss of nitrogen from the soil, and the overall extinction rate for nonhuman species-have been exceeded. There are impediments to endless capital accumulation that future crisis theories will have to reckon with.’ This can be easily integrated into the theories of output and of growth, as Ricardo’s diminishing returns to land, has been. Environmental depletion poses constraints on the supply side primarily and for economic growth, positive capital accumulation is necessary. Therefore, environmental degradation poses a strong constraint on the supply side of the economy.

II

Robert Brenner made a ‘frontal attack on the idea of wage-induced profit squeeze’ (p. 87). As Kunkel puts it, ‘increased competition exerted relentless downward pressure on profits, resulting in diminished business investment, reduced payrolls, and-with lower R&D expenditure-declining productivity gains from technological advance. The textbook result of this industrial tournament would have been the elimination of less competitive firms. But the picture drawn by The Economics of Global Turbulence is one of “excessive entry and insufficient exit” in manufacturing’ (p. 87). In other words, the profit squeeze was not wage-induced.

Marx’s realization crisis finds a mention in Kunkel’s essay on Brenner too. ‘If would-be purchasers are held back by low wages, then the total mass of commodities cannot be unloaded at the desired price. Capital fails to realize its customary profits, and accumulation towards stagnation’ (p. 91). This is the crucial point. Capital has to realize its customary profits, a magnitude which includes a return on risk and undertaking (a return on enterprise, if you like) and the rate of interest. Capital that is invested in a riskier enterprise is expected to provide higher returns. The search for demand (or markets) is not new. Mercantilism was precisely that. More recently, ‘[i]n Germany and Japan, and then in China, catering to external markets won out over nurturing internal demand’ (p. 94) However, currently, there are signs of a reversal as external demand is falling, and net-exporting countries are reorienting towards domestic demand (p. 95).

But, what is to be done? According to Kunkel, ‘[g]lobal prosperity will come about not through further concessions from labor, or the elimination of industrial overcapacity by widespread bankruptcy, but through the development of societies in which people can afford to consume more of what they produce, and produce more with the entire labor force at work’ (p. 98). Kunkel rightly advocates better wages and the full-employment of labour. For, it is only such a society which can afford its citizens with a dignified and economically comfortable life. As a matter of fact, ‘[m]ore leisure or free time, not less, would be one natural-and desirable-consequence of having more jobs’ (p. 103). A similar call is visible in Robert & Edward Skidelsky’s How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life published in 2012. We urgently need an economic architecture where goods can flow easily across regions, workers earn good wages, capital earns its customary profits, labour is fully employed and the environment is respected. In working towards this goal, it is necessary to possess an accurate understanding of the link between demand, profits and employment.

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Posted in Economic Crisis, Economics, Employment, Karl Marx, Macroeconomics, Prices, Unemployment, Wages | No Comments »

The 2012-13 Economic Survey of India (with Raghuram Rajan)

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 4th March 2013

The Economic Survey (ES hereafter) is a document which presents the macroeconomic situation of India during a given period. It is drafted by the Ministry of Finance (MoF), Government of India with the Chief Economic Advisor (CEA) playing a chief role. The current CEA is Raghuram Rajan. At the MoF website, detailed profiles of the people who drafted the Economic Survey 2012-13 are available.

This blog has analysed the previous three economic surveys (2009-10; 2010-11; 2011-12) undertaken under the guidance of Kaushik Basu, the predecessor to Rajan. The current analysis is broadly divided into two parts. The first part deals with the ES’s view of economic growth and employment and its theoretical underpinnings. Here, we discuss the gloomy industrial performance, issues surrounding productivity of labour and the role of government expenditure. The second part focuses on select policy proposals and examines it in brief; the debates surrounding oil subsidies, high current account deficit and attracting foreign capital fall under this section.

I

The underlying theory of growth outlined in the ES is what economists’ term supply-side growth theory. Growth in output per worker is determined by growth in the supply of factors – labour and capital (more precisely, produced means of production). Whatever be the growth in their supply, the demand will automatically adjust. In other words, aggregate demand adapts to aggregate supply and investment adjusts to saving. Thus, in equilibrium, there can be no unemployment of factors, including that of labour. It will presently be seen that it is such a framework which enables the ES to recommend a reduction of government expenditure which will apparently promote growth.

Rajan deserves praise for underscoring the importance of quality employment right in the beginning of the ES. In Chapter 2 entitled ‘Seizing the Demographic Dividend’, a case is made for improving labour productivity and for increasing both the quantity and quality of employment.

Policymakers are usually focused on short-run economic management issues. But the short run has to be a bridge to the long run. The central long-run question facing India is where will good jobs come from? Productive jobs are vital for growth. And a good job is the best form of inclusion. (p. 26)

‘Productive jobs’ refers to jobs where the productivity levels are high. Growth in per capita income is primarily determined by labour productivity, growth in the working population and growth in the working population who find jobs – the employment rate (p. 30). Labour productivity rises with greater investment in physical and human capital. The reason for low agricultural productivity is identified to be low investment and therefore the solution proposed is an increase in capital per worker (p. 32). Yes, technological advances are necessary but so are transformations in agrarian relations pertaining to caste and gender. Moreover, the presence of inter-linked markets makes agricultural markets very coercive, and less competitive.

Furthermore, low labour productivity is linked to rigid labour laws and excessive government regulations. It is of course necessary that the current labour laws be examined and improved upon whereby workers are provided decent wages, adequate sick and maternity leaves, indexation with inflation, etc. As the chapter rightly concludes, ‘We need to examine carefully whether regulations constrain businesses excessively and, if so, strip away the excess regulation while ensuring adequate protection and minimum safety nets for workers’ (p. 54).

But, the question remains: what is the mechanism by which employment rises? The answer provided is that saving generates investment and investment generates employment. ES points out that investment can be increased by increasing saving.

If India were to follow a similar path [like that of China], it would need to increase savings and investment, both of which will follow from the demographic transformation. But it will also have to increase the intrinsic productivity of jobs…. (p. 31)

But, why will aggregate investment increase without a corresponding rise in aggregate demand? And, where will this increase come from if all the individuals save more, based on the recommendation by the ES? (One only needs to recollect the ‘paradox of thrift’.) Investment is undertaken so that the commodities and services that are being produced can be sold. Only if they are sold can profits be realised.

The adherence to a supply side theory of growth is clearly visible in the chapter dealing with industrial performance (Chapter 9). Owing to this belief, the analysis carried out in that chapter mistakes correlation for causation and also gets the causal chain wrong.

The moderation in industrial growth, particularly in the manufacturing sector, is largely attributed to sluggish growth of investment, squeezed margins of the corporate sector, deceleration in the rate of growth of credit flows and the fragile global economic recovery.

Low investment is considered to be the primary cause of poor industrial performance with a slight mention of decline in foreign demand. Further, the authors’ of the ES maintain that a low investment has resulted in excess capacity (obviously!) and also a decline in capacity utilization. Yet, they fail to point out that it is a fall in demand for industrial products which has caused the fall in capacity utilization and to a reduction in investment! Although, unconnected to their narrative of industrial decline, they note a reduction in the rate of growth of sales of listed manufacturing companies. The rate of growth ‘declined from an average of 28.8 per cent in Q1 of 2010-11 to 11.4 per cent in Q2 of 2012-13, the latest quarter for which comparable set of data are available.’ Hence, in order to increase investment, the authors’ want to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). But, the problem is not a lack of investment but a deficiency of demand.

In a similar line of supply-side thinking, the ES argues that fiscal consolidation or a lowering of government expenditure will result in a ‘higher growth in real GDP.’ As the ES clearly states,

Staying on the indicated fiscal consolidation path is critical to sustaining the desirable macroeconomic outcomes not only in terms of higher growth in real GDP and lower inflation, but also in easing the financing of the widening current account deficit (CAD), for which India’s sovereign credit rating is important. (p. 56)

While it is unfortunately true that credit rating agencies and foreign capital considers government spending to be a threat, the claim that fiscal consolidation enables faster growth seems to lack any solid proof. Unless, we treat inflows of foreign capital to be a source of sustainable and high economic growth!

In sum, the theoretical framework underlying the current Economic Survey is problematic because of its inability to explain labour unemployment (or excess capacity) as a permanent feature of capitalist economies. This unemployment is primarily owing to a deficiency of aggregate demand. Furthermore, owing to the supply-side underpinnings, the recommendations are to increase savings. This is clearly stated as objectives in the ‘Press Statement on Release of Economic Survey: 2012-13’. (1) ‘Increase government savings, especially by reducing distortionary subsidies’ and (2) ‘increase opportunities for savers to get strong real returns on financial investment.’ Therefore, a deficiency in saving is identified as the main hurdle for the Indian economy.

II

In this part we briefly examine the reasons why fuel subsidies are harmful to India in the long run and the problems surrounding India’s current account deficit. Fuel is a basic commodity in the sense that it enters as an input into the production of all commodities. And, petroleum is an exhaustible resource. The price in the international market does reflect its scarcity. A high price indicates that demand is over stripping supply. Fuel subsidies are a short term solution which takes the burden of innovation from Indian oil companies and the responsibility of proper use from Indian consumers onto the shoulders of the Government. Yes, workers need to be insulated from high oil prices. One way to do this is by indexing wages to inflation. A high fuel price also quickens the search for alternative sources of energy and better agricultural and manufacturing machinery which uses less fuel. One final point. The argument that fuel subsidies need to be reduced so as to reduce budget deficit so that there is economic growth is, as pointed out earlier, based on the flawed economics of supply-side growth theory.

India’s current account deficit has reached worrisome levels. The value of imports has been rising mainly on account of higher international oil price. Exports have fallen due to a slowdown in foreign demand. India’s main imports are (1) petroleum, (2) pearls (for re-export) and (3) gold. Owing to the surplus in invisibles (services such as transport and software; and private investment income transfers) some of the deficit in the merchandise trade balance is absorbed. Apart from the surplus in invisible trade, the other avenue for meeting the merchandise trade deficit comes from the capital account. The major source of (net) capital inflow is foreign investment, which comprises foreign direct investment and portfolio investment. The other source of foreign exchange is loans. Given this situation, the Economic Survey proposes measures which attract foreign investors and by imposing duties which make gold imports costlier. Both these are extremely short-sighted measures and the former one makes economic growth to hinge crucially on foreign capital which is not advisable. The long term solution, as suggested in the case of oil subsidies, ought to be technological innovations in the export industries so that they are internationally competitive. Also, the propensity to imports should be reduced by promoting industries which can produce similar commodities. Moreover, there is a huge potential in the Indian tourism industry. And, as the ES also recognises, ‘the best way to reduce gold imports in a sustainable way will be to offer the public financial investment opportunities that generate attractive returns.’

Conclusion

The move to reduce government spending and measures which attract foreign capital are therefore based on the flawed supply-side theory of economic growth; we require an increase in employment and incomes and in aggregate demand. Moreover, the proposed measures to deal with structural problems of the Indian economy are not just short-term but short-sighted and unsustainable in the long-run. These measures also discourage technological innovations especially in the area of alternative energy sources.  Oligopolistic markets should be replaced with competitive markets with good labour laws which ensure that part of the productivity gains go to the workers.

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Posted in Demographic Dividend, Economic Growth, Economics, Employment, Foreign Exchange, GDP, Government, India, Industrial sector, Macroeconomics, Neoclassical Economics, Supply side economics, Unemployment, Wages | No Comments »

Wages in Economic Theory and Reality: Some Issues

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 2nd January 2013

Wages is the payment made to a labourer for the number of hours worked – sowing seeds, rolling tobacco, developing computer software or providing medical care in a hospital. How are these wages determined? Are they determined in a similar manner as that of commodities? That is, are they determined based on some sort of demand and supply mechanism? Or, are they predominantly set by non-economic forces which are not easily quantifiable? This blog post looks at the dominant neoclassical or marginalist viewpoint and contrasts it with the theoretical approach of classical economics. In this light, the post examines certain characteristics of the Indian economy relating to labour and employment.

The basic principles of neoclassical economics tell us that the price and quantity demanded and supplied of a commodity are determined by the intersection of its demand and supply curves. This is the demand and supply approach to economics. When extended to labour, the intersection of the demand and supply curves of labour is supposed to determine the wages per hour (the price of labour) and the number of hours worked (the quantity of labour). Therefore, an increase in the demand for labour relative to its supply is expected to raise the wage rate and a relative increase in supply of labour (say, from an increase in the working population commonly termed the demographic dividend) leads to a fall in the wage rate.

Classical economics, a distinct theoretical framework in economics, has a very different view of wages. It largely considers wages as an exogenous variable; that is, wages are not determined by market forces – demand and supply of commodities or of labour. Of course, temporary changes can be brought about by market forces. In the theoretical world of classical economics, wages are determined primarily by socio-cultural factors such as trade union strength, the collective notion of minimum wages for different occupations and the society’s views on trust, risk, etc. In this theoretical world, which to me, seems closer to the reality, an improvement in social institutions lead to an increase in subsistence wages. Wages, in this framework, has a subsistence (relatively fixed) component and a surplus (relatively flexible) component. Hence, classical economics allows for an increase in wages, in its surplus component, when GDP is rising on account of higher labour productivity.

A conflict is present in the distribution of GDP between workers and capitalists. Neoclassical economics eliminates this conflict by recourse to marginal productivity theory. By employing logically fallacious concepts (especially of capital), a theory of distribution has been erected where both labour and ‘capital’ are ‘justly’ remunerated. In this framework, trade unions distort the market and causes injustice! According to classical economics, the presence of strong trade unions and fair labour laws ensure that workers get a fair share of productivity gains, which will otherwise entirely go as profits of the capitalists. The Global Wage Report 2012/13 published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) notes that in several countries wage rises have not matched the increase in employment and productivity (see especially p. 28).

There are enormous disparities in wage rates across the states in India, with Kerala paying relatively high wages. One reason for the high wages is the presence of strong trade unions. As per the Labour Bureau (as part of the Rural Labour Enquiry) report on ‘Wage Rates in Rural India’ for September 2012, the average daily wage rates for men for engaging in sowing in Gujarat is 132 rupees; in Kerala, it is 500 rupees; and in Tamil Nadu, it is 222.02 rupees. A carpenter in Gujarat is paid 233.33 rupees daily; in Kerala, he is paid 514.05 rupees and in Tamil Nadu, he is paid 388.6 rupees. The differences are starker with respect to unskilled labour: a male unskilled worker in Gujarat gets paid 109 rupees; in Kerala, he earns 411.32 rupees; and in Tamil Nadu, he earns 223.54 rupees. The corresponding wages for a female worker are: 101.71 rupees in Gujarat, 266 rupees in Kerala and 159. 76 rupees in Tamil Nadu. Note the gender-wage inequality in Kerala. Also, the economic condition in rural Kerala is significantly better than rural Tamil Nadu; therefore, the statistics will have to be interpreted with some restraint.

Subsistence wage, as a concept, has enormous theoretical and practical significance. In fact, the legislations pertaining to minimum wages in India ought to look at socio-cultural factors too, such as gender, caste, geographic location, kind of labour (formal vs. informal, rural vs. urban) and so on. The enforcement of minimum wages has been beset with difficulties as evident from a recent study (published in 2011) by Patrick Belser and Uma Rani; the proportion of salaried workers and the proportion of casual workers below the minimum wage at the national level is 25.3 and 50.6 per cent respectively. Discussions on and about subsistence wages, and by extension, on minimum wage legislations are much needed. Moreover, discussions surrounding subsistence wages can also result in more dignified definitions of poverty and minimum wages.

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Posted in Agricultural sector, Classical Economics, Classical Political Economy, Development Economics, Economics, Employment, India, Kerala Economy, Labour Economics, Wages | 2 Comments »