The principal problem of Political Economy
from David Ruccio
The discussion of capital and labor shares puts the issue of class at the top of the agenda. No wonder, then, that mainstream economists are expending so much effort these days attempting to define away the problem.
Let me explain.
If we look at changes in capital and labor shares (measured in terms of corporate profits before tax and compensation of employees as shares of gross domestic product, as in the chart on the left), we can clearly see that, in recent decades, the profit share has been rising and the labor share has been falling. In other words, labor has been losing out to capital—and we need to focus on solving that class problem.
But, of course, the share of income accruing to capital doesn’t just show up in corporate profits; some of that capital share is also distributed to a small portion of income-earners in the corporate (both financial and nonfinancial) sector. The share of income of the top one percent (as in the chart on the right) is a good approximation. If we therefore added the top-one-percent to corporate profits, and at the same time subtracted it from the compensation of employees, the divergence between the capital and labor shares would be even greater—and the class problem would be even more acute.
MIT’s Matthew Rognlie understands this perfectly. He notes that David Ricardo pronounced the issue of how aggregate income is split between labor and capital the “principal problem of Political Economy” and that the recent explosion of research on inequality has both called into question the postwar presumption of constant capital and labor shares and emphasized the increasing share of income accruing to the richest individuals. In other words, class has once again reared its ugly head.
Instead of trying to solve this class problem, Rognlie attempts to define away the problem—first, by focusing on net income shares and, then, by including housing in capital. He concludes that, once those adjustments are made,
concern about inequality should be shifted away from the split between capital and labor, and toward other aspects of distribution, such as the within-labor distribution of income.
The problem with focusing on net income shares—that is, in the case of capital, gross profits minus depreciation—is that it confuses flows of value (corporate profits before taxes, plus incomes to the top one percent, in the way I suggested above) with expenditures (e.g., by corporations to replace the value of plant, building, and machinery that has depreciated in value during the course of production).
The problem with including housing in the capital stock is that it doesn’t form part of the capital from which capitalists derive a flow of new value added or created. Housing industry profits are already accounted for in gross corporate profits. The fact that individuals may own housing doesn’t allow them to capture any of that new value; it just allows them to enjoy the benefits of have a home and to pay the costs (to banks and other financial institutions) of financing their homeownership.
While I agree with Rognlie that the “story of the postwar net capital share is not a simple one,” the fall and then recovery of the capital share (in the form of both corporate profits and one-percent incomes), which is mirrored by the rise and then fall of the wage share, can’t simply be defined away.
In other words, just as it was in the early-nineteenth century, class remains the “principal problem of Political Economy” in our own times