Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dividing the Spoils

In response to the last post, commenter 5371 asks, "An anti-managerial counterrevolution which the managers themselves ended up leading?" Fair question, here's my answer: 

I think there is a very convincing story in which the emergence of the modern corporation in the early decades of the 20th century, and then the vast expansion of the federal administrative apparatus in the New Deal and (especially) World War II, created a class of professional managers with substantial autonomy from the notional owners of capital. (Not as cohesive as the enarques in France, but the same kind of stratum.) As managers of firms they pursued a variety of objectives, of which providing a satisfactory (not maximal) flow of payments to shareholders was just one among others.

At some point (in the late 1970s, let's say) this arrangement broke down, with conflicts both between managers and owners over the fraction of surplus flowing to the latter, and between owners and workers, over the size of the surplus, with mangers basically on the side of owners. The second of these conflicts was, in some sense, more fundamental, but the first one was also real and important.

You then had a series of institutional changes that were intended to realign the interests of managers with owners, in terms of both conflicts. During the period of realignment, these changes took the form -- at least at times -- of open conflict, with recalcitrant managers forcibly removed by LBOs, etc. But over time, top management was effectively absorbed into the capitalist class proper, and stopped seeing themselves as the social embodiment of the firm as a social organism or representatives of society as a whole. At the same time, there does have to be continuous policing to ensure that management doesn't deviate from the goal of maximizing payments to shareholders. That is finance's other function, along with intermediation, and it's this second function that has been responsible for finance's growth over the past decades. (Along with the rents that financial institutions and asset-owners claim in the course of doing their enforcement work.)

So in terms of overt conflict between owners and managers, the shareholder revolution is over; the shareholders won. The fly in the ointment is that no one is policing the police, and unlike other institutional supports of the capitalist system (the actual police, say, or the legal profession or academia) they don't have the right internal norms to make them reliable servants.

That's how it looks to me, anyway. I realize this is just a set of assertions, which would need to be backed up with evidence/examples to convince anyone who's not already convinced. As usual, I recommend Doug H.'s Wall Street (especially chapter 6, which I'm having my students read this semester) and Dumenil & Levy's Crisis of Neoliberalism to see the argument developed properly. One of these days maybe I'll write something substantive on it myself.

I should add, an interesting aspect of the counterrevolution of the rentiers is the way that the claim of shareholders on the maximum possible payments from "their" firms has become an accepted moral principle. There are lots of educated people, even liberals, who unquestioningly believe that it is morally wrong for managers to have any objectives except maximizing future dividend payments. E.g. look at this old Baseline Scenario post on Goldman Sachs' relatively low 2009 bonuses, with the unironic title Good for Goldman:
Goldman did the right thing here.We all know that Goldman made a lot of money last year. ... Many people think that it made that money because of government support, but that’s beside the point here; right now, this is purely a question of dividing the spoils between employees and shareholders.

Historically, investment banks have given a large proportion of the profits (here, meaning before compensation and taxes) to the employees. For example, in 2007 Goldman gave $20.2 billion out of $37.8 billion to its employees, or 53%. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this. ... More insidiously, investment banking executives tend to see their employees as younger versions of themselves, which creates a sense of solidarity... Contrast this to, say, Wal-Mart, where top management has very little in common (socially, educationally, economically, politically, etc.) with the vast majority of their employees. As a result, investment bankers are overpaid. ...
Goldman should reduce its per-employee compensation expenses even further, and should try to push the industry to a new equilibrium where the payout ratio is in the 30-40% range and average compensation for investment bankers is in the $300-400,000 range. And Goldman’s shareholders should apply pressure to make this happen; basically, they should try to squeeze labor.
I find this sort of thing fascinating. James Kwak is a liberal, one of the good guys. But it's awfully hard not to read him here as saying it's a good thing that Wal-Mart execs have nothing in common with the proles to distract them from serving their true masters, and that where a sense of solidarity does exist between managers and workers, it's an "insidious" problem that needs to be stamped out. There's nothing ironic in those "should"s.

Of course I'm no fan of traders, financial engineers, and the rest of the pirates, but as Kwak himself says, this is "purely a question of dividing the spoils." So I don't see why the silent partners who finance the privateers have any better claim than the guys with flintlocks and cutlasses, or why we should treat it as something to celebrate when the financiers get a bigger share of the take. [1] What's strange is how many people, many not especially rich or conservative, have been somehow convinced that the biggest problem with businesses is that they aren't run purely enough for profit, and that employees still have too much control over their work and pay. That in any conflict between owners and workers or managers, the social interest is obviously -- obviously -- on the side of the owners. It's nuts.

[1] Ok, yes, about 15 percent of corporate equity is owned by pension funds. So yes, salaried workers (including me and probably you) do in some sense confront employees, at both Goldman and Wal-Mart, as owners. We can't just say "the capitalist is the personification of capital" and be done with it, as Marx did; capitalist as economic function and capitalists as sociological category don't coincide as nicely as they did in his day. But why should we let our little interest as junior capitalists dominate our much larger interests as workers, citizens, and human beings? Why should we assume that the claims on business exercised by virtue of capital ownership, are the only ones that are morally legitimate?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Doug Henwood on Our Current Disorders

Blogging's been light here lately. Sorry. In the meantime, you should read this:
if you combine net equity offerings—which, given the heavy schedule of buybacks over the last quarter century, have been negative most of the time since 1982—takeovers (which involve the distribution of corporate cash to shareholders of the target firm), and traditional dividends into a concept I call transfers to shareholders, you see that corporations have been shoveling cash into Wall Street’s pockets at a furious pace. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, nonfinancial corporations distributed about 20% of their profits to shareholders.... After 1982, though, the shareholders’ share rose steadily. It came close to 100% in 1998, fell back to a mere 25% in 2002, and then soared to 126% in 2007. That means that corporations were actually borrowing to fund these transfers. ...

So what exactly does Wall Street do? Let’s be generous and concede that it does provide some financing for investment. But an enormous apparatus of trading has grown up around it—not merely trading in certificates, but in control over entire corporations. I think it’s less fruitful to think of Wall Street as a financial intermediary than it is to think of it as an instrument for the establishment and exercise of class power. It’s the means by which an owning class forms itself, particularly the stock market. It allows the rich to own pieces of the productive assets of an entire economy. So, while at first glance, the tangential relation of Wall Street, especially the stock market, to financing real investment might make the sector seem ripe for tight regulation and heavy taxation, its centrality to the formation of ruling class power makes it a very difficult target.
For a long while [after 1929], shareholder ownership was more notional than active. ... But when the Golden Age was replaced by Bronze Age of rising inflation and falling profits, Wall Street ... unleashed what has been dubbed the shareholder revolution, demanding not only higher profits but a larger share of them. The first means by which they exercised this control was through the takeover and leveraged buyout movements of the 1980s. By loading up companies with debt, they forced managers to cut costs radically, and ship larger shares of the corporate surplus to outside investors rather than investing in the business or hiring workers. ... [In the 1990s,] the shareholder revolution recast itself as a movement of activist pension funds... the idea was to get managers to think and act like shareholders, since they were materially that under the new regime.
But pension fund activism sort of petered out as the decade wore on. Managers still ran companies with the stock price in mind, but the limits to shareholder influence have come very clear since the financial crisis began. Managers have been paying themselves enormously while stock prices languished. ... The problem was especially acute in the financial sector: Bank of America, for example, bought Merrill Lynch because its former CEO, Ken Lewis, coveted the firm, and if the shareholders had any objections, he could just lie to them... It was as if the shareholder revolution hardly happened, at least in this sense. But all that money flowing from corporate treasuries into money managers’ pockets has quieted any discontent.
I do have some doubts about that last paragraph, tho -- I suspect that "especially acute" should really be "limited to." I don't think it's as if the shareholder revolution never happened -- there still is, you know, all that money flowing into money managers' pockets -- but more a matter of quis custodiet ipsos custodes. If the function of finance is as overseers for the capitalist class -- and I think Doug is absolutely right about this -- then, well, who's going to oversee them. Intrinsic motivation, norms and conventions, is really the only viable solution to this sort of principal-agent problem, and the culture of finance doesn't do it.

Jim Crotty is also very worth reading on this. And I think he's clearer that this kind of predatory management is mostly specific to Wall Street.

Monday, January 23, 2012

I Was Born on the Wrong Continent

... because I want to vote for this guy:

François Hollande, the leading challenger for the French presidency, has described the banking industry as a faceless ruler and his “true adversary”. As he launched in earnest his campaign to become France’s first socialist head of state since the mid-1990s, Mr Hollande said he would seek a Franco-German treaty to overturn the “dominance of finance” and re-orient Europe towards growth and big industrial projects.

At a rally on the outskirts of Paris in front of thousands of supporters on Sunday afternoon, he said: “My true adversary does not have a name, a face, or a party. He never puts forward his candidacy, but nevertheless he governs. My true adversary is the world of finance.” ... Mr Hollande promised, if elected, to separate the investment activities of French banks from their other operations, ban them from tax havens and establish a “public” credit ­rating agency for Europe. He also promised higher taxes for people earning more than €150,000 a year and attacked the “new aristocracy” of today’s super-rich. A financial transaction tax would be introduced, with France acting with other European countries willing to participate....

In a powerful speech that advisers said he had written himself over the weekend, the socialist candidate came out fighting, looking to make an impression on the broader French public by taking aim at some carefully chosen national bêtes noires. These included globalisation, unemployment and shrinking domestic industry. But uppermost were bankers....

“I have always followed the line on which I was fixed,” he said. “I am a socialist. The left did not come to me through heritage. It was necessary for me to move towards it.”
Certain leftists I know will say this is just populist bluster, that nothing is finance's fault, and that this kind of language is just a distraction from genuine radical politics. But it's not all bluster: As Arin D. points out, French bankers seem to have been born on the wrong continent, too.

 Maybe we can arrange a swap?

Friday, January 13, 2012

"Real" Isn't Real

Sorry, no, it's not about Lacan.

For a while, I've tried to avoid the common economic usage of calling the change in an observed variable, minus inflation, the "real" change. I prefer a more neutral and descriptive term like "inflation-adjusted."

What we call nominal quantities really are real, in a sociological sense: they exist, they're directly observable.Your mortgage or car loan requires a schedule of payments in dollars, in some fixed proportion to the value (also in dollars) of the original loan. Those are actual numbers you can see in your contract. The S&P 500 index is at at 1,286; a year ago it was at 1,282. Those are actual numbers you can look up in any financial website. You paid $2.50 for a tube of toothpaste; the bills and coins actually changed hands. Whereas the "real" values of all these numbers are constructions, estimated after the fact (and then re-estimated), involving more or less arbitrary choices and judgement calls. There's no fact of the matter there at all.

To begin with, you have to choose your price index. It's often not obvious whether the consumer price index, the GDP deflator, or some other index is most conceptually appropriate. [1] And it makes a difference! Just among the most important published price indexes, we see the increase in the price level over the past 50 years ranging from five times, to nearly eight times. Anyone who tells you something like, a dollar in 1960 "is equal to" 13 cents in 2010 is confused, or at least grossly simplifying.

And then there are the differences that don't show up in the published indexes. The CPI is intended to be a price index for all urban consumers, but not every consumer is urban and not all urbs are equal. Robert Gordon estimates that the bulk of the college wage premium goes away if you correct for the higher cost of living in areas where college graduates live. Of course this only makes sense if college grads have to live in pricey urban areas in order to get their college wages. If you instead assumed that the cost of living is higher in urban areas because of various non-market amenities, which college graduates have a particular taste for, then Gordon's correction would be inappropriate. [2] So again, while nominal values are real, in the sense that they observably exist, "real" values depend on assumptions about various unobservables.

And then there's the after-the-fact adjustments which price indexes are always subject to. (As are nominal aggregates, to be fair, but to a much less extent, and almost always due to better data rather than conceptual changes.) That was what got me thinking about this today, in fact: rereading Dean Baker's comments on the Boskin Commission. [3] Dean points out that if you take the Commission's methodology seriously, you'd have to make even bigger downward adjustments to inflation in earlier periods, implying that when people in the postwar years thought the economy was threatened by inflation, it was "really" experiencing deflation:
If the size of the current annual overstatement [of the increase in the CPI] is 1.1 percentage points, the the annual overstatement may have exceeded 2.0 percentage points in past years, meaning that, at many times when there was public concern about inflation,  the economy was actually experiencing deflation. ... Extrapolating the commission's adjustment backwards implies that, throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, prices were actually falling. This was a period when the president appointed a council to set wage-price guidelines to keep inflation in check.
It's a problem. Obviously using just nominal values is deceptive in many cases, and there are plenty of cases where deflating by some standard index gives a more meaningful number. But one shouldn't suppose that it is "real." And certainly one can't suppose, as the formalism of economics implicitly or explicitly does, that there are quasi-physical quantities of "utility" out there which the appropriate price deflators can convert dollar values into.

We have to think more critically about how the categories of economics join up with social and individual reality. Where goods exchange for each other in markets, they have a quantitative relationship: so much of this is, in some sense, "the same as" so much of that. (There's a reason why Capital Volume I begins how it does, tedious as people sometimes find it.) But that relationship comes into existence in the process of exchange, it didn't exist until then. So as soon as we are talking about goods that don't exchange for each other, say because they exist at different moments, we can no longer regard them as being quantitatively comparable. In this sense, nominal figures are real, since they really describe the quantitative relationship of some stock or flow with others existing in the same pay community.  They are observable and are have direct consequences. Not so "real" figures, which depend on the implicit assumption that the only point of contact between the economy and human reality is the mix of goods that is consumed, and that there is a fixed consumption function that converts that mix into a quantity of utility. Without that assumption, there is no basis on which to say that two baskets of goods that can't be traded for each other have any definite quantitative relationship.

Labor might seem to be a better universal standard than utility. There's a reason Keynes made employment his standard measure of economic performance, and wanted to measure output in terms of wage-units. (And it's certainly not because he thought the problems with capitalism originated in the labor market.) And there's a reason why Adam Smith subtitled his chapter on "the Real and Nominal Prices of Commodities" (I don't know how far back the distinction goes, maybe he made it first), "their Price in Labour, and their Price in Money." Well, I don't want to get into the labor theory of value here, except to say that I don;t think any other standard of "real" quantities is any more securely founded. My point is just that it may be, for questions we cannot answer with dollar values, there is no better, objective set of values we can use in their place. At that point we have to think about the various complex ways in which the system of monetary values interacts with the social reality in which it is embedded. For instance, the ways in which the costs of unemployment are not reducible to foregone output and income. The reproduction of society, let's say, has quantitative, law-like moments; those moments are greatly distended under capitalism, but they still aren't everything.

I'll keep on adjusting nominal figures for inflation; what else can you do? But let's not call them real.

[1]  It's worth noting that writers in the Marxist tradition are often more sensitive to the differences between price indexes than are either (Post) Keynesian or mainstream economists. The possibility of a systematic divergence between the price of wage goods and the price of output as a whole was a question Marx gave a lot of thought to.

[2] I.e., the premium on urban areas implies there's some desirable thing there that's not being measured, but is it a consumer good or an intermediate good?

[3] Not for fun, for course prep, for my macro course, which I'm hoping to make fodder for blogging this spring. Thus the tag.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Bergeron Solution

Does anybody else remember  that Kurt Vonnegut story "Harrison Bergeron"? (It's an early one; he reused the conceit, I think, in one of his novels -- The Sirens of Titan maybe?) The idea is that in a future egalitarian dystopia, perfect fairness is achieved by subjecting everyone to penalties corresponding to their talents -- the physically fit have to wear burdensome weights, smart people like you and me and Kurt have earphones subjecting us to distracting noises, and so on. 

As a story, it's not much -- sort of a Simple English version of The Fountainhead. But I thought of it when I read this post from Nick Rowe last month. Microeconomics isn't normally my bag, but this was fun.

Suppose we have a group of similar people. One of them has to do some unpleasant or dangerous job, defending the border against the Blefuscudians, say. Has to be one person, they can't rotate. So what is the welfare-maximizing way to allocate this bad job? Have a draft where someone is picked by lot and compelled to do it, or offer enough extra pay for it that someone volunteers? You'd think that standard micro would say the market solution is best. But -- well, here's Nick:
The volunteer army is fair ex post. The one who volunteers gets the same level of utility as the other nine. ... The lottery is unfair ex post, because they all get the same consumption but one has a nastier job. That's obvious. What is not obvious, until you think about it, is that ... the lottery gives higher expected utility. That's the result of Theodore Bergstrom's minor classic "Soldiers of Fortune" paper.
The intuition is straightforward. Think about the problem from the Utilitarian perspective, of maximising the sum of the ten utilities. This requires equalising the marginal utility of consumption for all ten men. ... The volunteer army gives the soldier higher consumption, and so lower marginal utility of consumption, so does not maximise total utility. ....
If we assume, as may be reasonable, that taking the job reduces the marginal utility of consumption, that strengthens the advantages of the lottery over the volunteer army. It also means they would actually prefer a lottery where the soldier has lower consumption than those who stays home. The loser pays the winners, as well as risking his life, in the most efficient lottery.
It's a clever argument. You need to pay someone extra to do a crap job. (Never mind that those sorts of compensating differentials are a lot more common in theory than in the real world, where the crappiest jobs are also usually the worst paid. We're thinking like economists here.) But each dollar of consumption contributes less to our happiness than the last one. So implementing the fair outcome leaves everyone with lower expected utility than just telling the draftee to suck it up.

Of course, this point has broader applications. I'd be shocked if some version of it hasn't been deployed as part of an anti-Rawlsian case against social insurance. Nick uses it to talk about CEO pay. That's the direction I want to go in, too.

We all know why Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and Carlos Slim Helu are so rich, right? It's because they sit on top of a vast machine for transforming human lives into commodities market income is equal to marginal product, and Buffet and Gates and Slim and everybody named Walton are just so damn productive. We have to pay them what they're worth or they won't produce all this valuable stuff that no one else can. Right?

The problem is, even if the monstrously rich really were just as monstrously productive, that wouldn't make them utility monsters. Even if you think that the distribution of income is determined by the distribution of ability, there's no reason to think that people's ability to produce and their ability to derive enjoyment from consumption coincide. Indeed, to the extent that being super productive means having less leisure, and means developing your capacity for engineering or order-giving rather than for plucking the hour and the day virtuously and well, they might well be distributed inversely. But even if Paul Allen really does get an ecstasy from taking one of his jets to his helicopter to his boat off the coast of Southern France that we plebes, with our puny so-called vacations [1], can't even imagine, the declining marginal utility of consumption is still going to catch up with him eventually. Two private jets may be better than one, but surely they're not twice as good.

And that, if you believe the marginal product story, is a problem. The most successful wealth-creators will eventually reach a point where they may be as productive as ever, but it's no longer worth their while to keep working. Look at Bill Gates. Can you blame him for retiring? He couldn't spend the money he's got in ten lifetimes, he can't even give it away. But if you believe his salary up til now has reflected his contribution to the social product, his retirement is a catastrophe for the rest of us. Atlas may not shrug, but he yawns.

Wealth blunts the effects of incentives. So we want the very productive to have lots of income, but very little wealth. They should want to work 12 hour days to earn more, but they shouldn't be tempted to cut their hours back to spend what they already earned. It seems like an insoluble problem, closely related to Suresh's superstar doctor problem, which liberalism has no good answer to. [2]

But that's where we come to Harry Bergeron. It's perfectly possible for superstar doctors to have both a very high income and very low wealth. All that's required is that they start in a very deep hole.

If we really believed that the justification for income disparities is to maintain incentives for the productive, we'd adopt a version of the Bergeron plan. We'd have tests early in life to assess people's innate abilities, and the better they scored, the bigger the bill we'd stick them with. If it's important that "he who does not work, neither shall he eat," [3] it's most important for those who have the greatest capacity to work. Keep Bill Gates hungry, and he might have spent another 20 years extracting rents from network externalities creating value for Microsoft's shareholders and customers.

There's no shortage of people to tell you that it might seem unfair that Paul Allen has two private jets in a world where kids in Kinshasa eat only every two days, but that in the long run the tough love of proper incentives will make more pie for everyone. Many of those people would go on to say that the reason Paul Allen needs to be encouraged so strenuously is because of his innate cognitive abilities. But very few of those people, I think, would feel anything but moral outrage at the idea that if people with Allen's cognitive capacities could be identified at an early age, they should be stuck with a very big bill and promised a visit from very big bailiffs if they ever missed a payment. And yet the logic is exactly the same.

Of course I'm not endorsing this idea; I don't think the rich, by and large, have any special cognitive capacities so I'm happy just to expropriate them; we don't have to work them until they drop. (People who do believe that income inequality is driven by marginal productivity don't have such an easy out.)

But it's funny, isn't it: As a society we seem to be adopting something a bit like the Bergeron Solution. People who are very productive, at least as measured by their expected salaries, do begin their lives, or at least their careers, with a very big bill. Which ensures that they'll be reliable creators of value for society, where value is measured, as always, in dollars. God forbid that someone who could be doctor or lawyer should decide to write novels or raise children or spend their days surfing. Of course one doesn't want to buy into some naive functionalism, not to say conspiracy theory. I'm not saying that the increase in student debt happened in order that people who might otherwise have been tempted into projects of self-valorization would continue to devote their lives to the valorization of capital instead. But, well, I'm not not saying that.

[1] What, you think that "family" you're always going on about could provide a hundredth the utility Paul Allen gets from his yacht?

[2] That post from Suresh is where I learned about utility monsters.

[3] I couldn't be bothered to google it, but wasn't it Newt's line back in the day, before Michele Bachman picked it up?