Friday, September 14, 2007

Productivity and the Crisis of Capital

It is truly telling when even capitalist wonks are making the same critiques (with some of the same conclusions) of the financialization of capital as Marxists have been all along. The fellows at Minyanville fall into that category and have these interesting posts over the past two days:

Kevin Depew:
Eric Weiner in an article published in Tuesday's LA Times (Use time wisely -- by slacking off) writes, "Attitudes toward work differ not only across time but also place. Corinne Maier's appropriately slim volume, "Bonjour Laziness: Why Hard Work Doesn't Pay," advocated that workers resort to "active disengagement" at the office. It was a bestseller in France but didn't resonate on these shores."
  • Yes, when it was published a year ago, Maier's book advocating laziness didn't resonate on these shores.
  • But that is already changing.
  • Weiner writes in the Times:
    "In his essay, "In Praise of Idleness," British philosopher Bertrand Russell proposed reducing the workday to four hours, convinced that "the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work." I agree. So be creative, be happy and waste some more time. Read this article again and again. Try reading it backward. E-mail it to co-workers. Translate it into Mandarin, then back into English. Then grab a coffee and enjoy some down time."
  • What is the connection with financial markets?
  • Think back for a moment to the Greenspan Productivity Miracle.
  • Well, the former Fed Chairman was certainly right about that.
  • The U.N.'s International Labor Organization recently issued a report that found that the U.S. leads the world in worker productivity -- and by a wide margin, Weiner notes.
  • So why would it change?
  • Productivity, like most "financial virtues," is the products of positive social mood trends.
  • As social mood transitions to negative, we can expect to see less and less "virtue" in hard work.
  • Think about it: real wages are virtually stagnant, so it's not as if people have experienced real reward for their work.
  • What has been experienced is an unconscious and shared herding impulse trending upward; a shared optimistic mood finding "joy" and "happiness" in work and denigrating the sole pursuit of leisure, idleness.
  • If social mood has, in fact, peaked, we can expect to see a different attitude toward work and productivity emerge.
  • Note that Weiner's article doesn't simply value leisure - it values "slacking off."
  • The phrase itself carries negative connotations:
    • Slacking - loosening, becoming less tight, less taut
    • Off - disengaging, dropping, deflating
  • These are not accidental connotations.
  • Within a positive social mood regime this might instead be called "pursuit of leisure."
13-Sep-2007: Minyanville, Five Things You Need to Know
And later:
Prof. Depew,

I think you've hit on one of the major causes of the productivity backpedaling when you point out that workers have long been receiving deteriorating real compensation. I think that as credit dries up, they will be left to face the impact of this lack of real income growth. Credit has simply masked that impact for years (indeed, the deteriorating real incomes have probably spurred the very same runaway consumer credit growth).

But I think there is another side to the drop in productivity, which I also expect to continue in force: the business world in general seems to have forgotten how to create progress at its financial core (wisely financing innovation). If too much malinvestment predominates, then you have entire enterprises of people running around to no profitable end, regardless of how "hard" they work. Ultimately, the debt tied to malinvestment does not get paid back, at which point it effectively subtracts from the GDP, and shows up as lower bulk productivity in the economy.

In a series of mass economic bubbles, such as those which have come to dominate the U.S. economy, you have a rolling pool of malinvestment, which remains even if the current bubble changes. The bubble sucks millions of people into fictitious bubble jobs, all of which are essentially malinvestment. Just think of the hundreds of thousands of pointless and unnecessary jobs and trillions of dollars of fictitious wealth created in the housing finance bubble (ignoring the companion home building bubble).

I would place the number of such jobs in our economy at at least 5 mln, including the housing bubble, the (overpriced) health care bubble, and the Homeland Security bubble. That's a lot of productivity decline baked into the cake...

14-Sep-2007: Minyanville, Malinvestment Behind the Return of the Slacker
Pretty amazing stuff. Of course, these guys are very faithful to their religion, and believe strongly that allowing the "free-market" to work without interference from central banks (such as the Federal Reserve) or from the governments would solve all the ills of the world. They believe that the crisis is an exception to the rule, rather than the rule itself.

This is plain wrong. The financialization of capital is a natural outcome, predicted by Marx, of the capitalist system rooted in the M-M1 circuit of money capital.

So we have:
The monetary crisis referred to in the text, being a phase of every crisis, must be clearly distinguished from that particular form of crisis, which also is called a monetary crisis, but which may be produced by itself as an independent phenomenon in such a way as to react only indirectly on industry and commerce. The pivot of these crises is to be found in moneyed capital, and their sphere of direct action is therefore the sphere of that capital, viz., banking, the stock exchange, and finance.

Capital Vol. I, Ch. 3, Karl Marx, 1967
It is to finance-capital that the capitalist future belongs. But this, both in the international struggle of competition and in the internal class struggle, means the most brutal and violent form of capital.

Finance-Capital and Crises, Karl Kautsky, 1911
The best solution is to overturn the system itself and replace it with a socialist system based on the logic of human need, as opposed to the exploitive capitalist system which is only interested in profit.

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