Home > Uncategorized > Weekend read – In Search of Sabotage

Weekend read – In Search of Sabotage

from James McMahon and Blair Fix

The most important feature of private ownership is not that it enables those who own,
but that it disables those who do not.
— Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler

A key aspect of Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler’s theory of ‘capital as power’ is that it treats property not as a productive asset, but as a negative social relation. Property, Nitzan and Bichler argue, is an institutional act of exclusion. It is the legal right to sabotage.

If this idea sounds odd to you, it is because (like most people) you think of property in terms of the things that are owned. But if you focus instead on the act of ownership, you realize that property rights are legalized exclusion, pure and simple. Nitzan and Bichler explain:

Technically, anyone can get into someone else’s car and drive away, or give an order to sell all of Warren Buffet’s shares in Berkshire Hathaway. The sole purpose of private ownership is to prevent us from doing so. In this sense, private ownership is wholly and only an institution of exclusion, and institutional exclusion is a matter of organized power.

Of course, Nitzan and Bichler are not the first to highlight the exclusionary nature of private property. (Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau did so at length in his 16th-century treatise on inequality.) But what’s new in the theory of capital as power is the focus on capitalist property rights as a form of ubiquitous social ‘sabotage’.

Nitzan and Bichler’s notion of ‘sabotage’ is inspired by the work of political economist Thorstein Veblen. Veblen was a strident social critic who wrote during the early 20th century. He took the concept of ‘sabotage’, which was associated with workers destroying their bosses’ machinery, and inverted it. Workers certainly rebelled against their bosses, but Veblen saw that a more pervasive act of sabotage came from business itself. That’s because property rights gave business the power to exclude workers from doing their job. This ‘legal right of sabotage’, Veblen argued, was the ‘larger meaning of the Security of Property’.1

Back to Nitzan and Bichler. In their theory of capital as power, Nitzan and Bichler have taken Veblen’s idea of sabotage and greatly expanded it. For Veblen, business sabotage mostly took the form of enforcing unemployment (which he called ‘discretionary idleness’). But for Nitzan and Bichler, sabotage is far more general. It is a ubiquitous outcome of private property.

It is easy to highlight specific acts of corporate sabotage. For example, Nitzan and Bichler point to the time (during the early 20th century) when US auto companies systematically bought up electric railways for the sole purpose of dismantling them. (Effective public transit, they surmised, would cut into their profits.) Or more recently, take the time when these same companies developed electric vehicles, but then shredded them (fearing they might undercut the sale of gas guzzlers). You can also see the effects of business-led sabotage in the financial and aesthetic histories of Hollywood cinema. Nefarious business behavior surrounds us.

That said, it is difficult to move from individual instances of corporate sabotage to the more general affect that capitalist property rights have on society. Still, if we want the concept of ‘sabotage’ to be scientific, we ultimately have to measure it. Doing so is our goal here.

In this series, which we are calling ‘In Search of Sabotage’, we will investigate how capitalists’ success relates to various social outcomes. If Nitzan and Bichler’s sabotage thesis is correct, a win for capitalists ought to come at the detriment of society at large.

With this idea in mind, here is the road ahead. In each installment of this series, we will pick something that we think is a social ‘bad’. (In this post we look at income inequality.) Then we’ll see how this social bad relates to capitalists’ success, as measured by Bichler and Nitzan’s power index. (We’ll explain this index in a moment.)

As we work through the data, we have no idea what we’ll find. So join us in this journey of science in action.

Quantifying capitalist power

According to the sabotage hypothesis, wielding property rights is not something to celebrate. It is a form of obstruction that harms society.

Part of this hypothesis is a simple truism. The law defines private property as the right to exclude. (The word ‘private’, Nitzan and Bichler note, comes from the Latin privatus, meaning ‘restricted’, and from privare, which means ‘to deprive’.) What is controversial about the sabotage hypothesis is the claim that private property’s exclusionary nature causes more harm than good.

To test the sabotage hypothesis, the first step is to measure capitalists’ success at enforcing corporate property rights. But how do we do that? Such a measurement sounds difficult, until we realize that capitalists do the work for us. Every day, capitalists use the ritual of capitalization to convert their property rights to a number. Then they broadcast the result far and wide. Of course, capitalists don’t call the result a ‘property-rights measurement’. They call it a ‘stock price’.

Looking at stock prices, Bichler and Nitzan propose that they offer a simple way to benchmark capitalist power. We take stock prices (which measure the ability to earn income from property rights) and compare them to wages (which measure the ability to earn income from working). Bichler and Nitzan call the result the ‘power index’:

\displaystyle \text{power index} = \frac{\text{stock price index}}{\text{average wage}} (1)

We will use Bichler and Nitzan’s power index as our benchmark of capitalist power.

Some power-index history: Bichler and Nitzan proposed the index in 2016 and measured its long-term history in the United States. In 2020, Joseph Baines and Sandy Hager calculated the power index for Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Japan. In 2021, James McMahon widened the sample to 12 countries. Here we have expanded the power-index sample to 42 countries. Figure 1 shows the data.

Figure 1: Estimates for the Bichler-Nitzan power index in 42 countries. For each country, we calculate the power index by dividing the country’s primary stock-price index by national income per capita (our proxy for the average wage). In this figure, we have plotted what we call the ‘normalized power index’, which is the logarithm of the ‘raw’ power index, normalized so that it averages 0 in each country. [Sources and methods]

There are a few things to note about our power-index data. First, we have used national income per capita as a proxy for the average wage. (We do this because national income data is more widely available than average wage data.) Second, the absolute value of the ‘raw’ power index (as defined by Equation 1) is not comparable across countries. That’s because each country’s stock index is defined differently. Third, the power index can vary greatly over time, which means that it is more useful to study its logarithm.

In Figure 1 we plot what we call the ‘normalized power index’, which is the natural logarithm of the raw power index, normalized so that it averages 0 in each country. (For calculation details, see the Sources and methods.) It is this normalized power index that we use for the calculations that follow.

Social Bads

With our power index in hand, the next step is to see how it compares to social ‘welfare’.

We’ve used scare quotes here because in mainstream economics, the term ‘welfare’ is used in a dubious way. It is code for ‘aggregate utility’ — the sum of every individual’s utility function. The goal of ‘welfare’ economics is to optimize well-being by maximizing aggregate utility. The (embarrassing) problem is that no one has ever measured ‘utility’ — not for a single person, let alone a whole society.

In reality, ‘welfare’ has many dimensions and is defined in social-political terms. That makes its measurement inherently subjective. To measure ‘welfare’ we must define what we think is good or bad for a society, and then decide how to weight the various outcomes. It is ultimately an exercise in political theory.

To test the sabotage hypothesis, we will select things that we think are social ‘bads’, and see if they correlate with Bichler and Nitzan’s power index. We acknowledge that our decisions are based on our own values, with which you are free to disagree. (One person’s sabotage is another person’s endowment.)

Income inequality

In this first installment of ‘In Search of Sabotage’, we will test how Bichler and Nitzan’s power index relates to the social ‘bad’ of income inequality.

A host of evidence suggests that inequality is socially corrosive. Over the last two decades, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have shown that income inequality correlates with a wide variety of social ills. (See their book The Spirit Level for a summary of this research.) Faced with this evidence, it is hard to argue that inequality is good in itself.

With income inequality as our social ‘bad’, the next step is to decide how we will measure it. To quantify inequality, we use the income share of the top 1%. We favor this measure (over the Gini index) for a few reasons. First, an income share is easy to interpret. Second, the evidence suggests that inequality dynamics play out mostly among the rich. Measuring the top 1% income share is a simple way to capture this action.

Our inequality data comes from the World Inequality Database, which contains the most comprehensive measurements of income distribution ever compiled. Figure 2 shows the inequality trends among our 42 countries.

Figure 2: Estimates for the top 1% share of income in 42 countries. Colors indicate different data series from the World Inequality Database. [Sources and methods]

Note that there are a variety of ways to calculate the top 1% share of income, as shown by the different colored lines in Figure 2. (These various measurements use different accounting definitions, discussed in the Sources and methods.) For the analysis that follows, we use all of the available top 1% data.

Powering inequality

With our metrics for the power index and top 1% share of income in hand, we are ready for our first test of the sabotage hypothesis. Before we get to the data, though, a brief word about statistics.

We measure correlation using the Pearson correlation coefficient, which varies from -1 (perfect negative correlation) to +1 (perfect positive correlation). For each country, we calculate the correlation between the power index and all estimates for the top 1% income share. To interpret this correlation, we also estimate its uncertainty using the bootstrap technique. (For details, see the Sources and methods.)

Figure 3 shows our results. Each point indicates the correlation between the power index and the top 1% share of income within a given country, measured over the time period shown in brackets. (Note that the data coverage within this period may be incomplete.) Error bars indicate our estimates for uncertainty in the correlation.

Figure 3: Correlation between the top 1% share of income and the Bichler-Nitzan power index. Points indicate the correlation within each country between the power index and all data for the top 1% share of income. Error bars indicate the 95% confidence interval for the correlation, estimated using a bootstrap resample. The time coverage for each country is shown in brackets. Note that there may be gaps in this coverage. [Sources and methods].

Looking at Figure 3, let’s tally the results. We find that for 15 countries (36% of our sample), there is no significant correlation between inequality and the power index. (We deem the correlation ‘not statistically significant’ when error bars cross the zero-correlation line.) In 2 countries, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, we find a significant negative correlation. And in the remaining 26 countries (62% of our sample) the power index shows a significant positive correlation with inequality.

At first glance, these results may appear less than compelling. Yes, in roughly two thirds of countries, the power index correlates positively with inequality. (This is the result we expect if capitalist property rights drive income inequality.) But what should we make of the remaining third of countries, where the power-inequality correlation is either non-significant or negative?

Before we cast judgement on the sabotage hypothesis, we should note that the data shown in Figure 3 are not all equal. Some correlations are based on a century of data. But other correlations are based on only a few decades of observation. Perhaps the length of the observation window affects the outcome?

To see if this is the case, let’s look at Figure 4. Here we plot the correlations from Figure 3 (this time without error bars) as a function of the number of years on which the correlation is based. The red line shows the smoothed trend. The results are clear: the longer we observe the correlation between the power index and income inequality, the more likely it is to be positive. This trend suggests that inequality moves with the power index mostly over the long term.

Figure 4: The power-inequality correlation as a function of the years of observation. Each point shows the correlation between the power index and the top 1% share of income within a country, plotted against the number of years of data on which the correlation is based. The red line indicates the smoothed trend. [Sources and methods]

Continuing with our analysis, let’s now look at the country-level trends as a whole. In Figure 5, we show three different ways to summarize the evidence.

In this chart, we’ve taken the country-level correlations shown in Figure 3, and used box plots to represent their distribution. Each panel shows a different way to weight the results. In Panel A, we weight each country’s power-inequality correlation equally. In Panel B, we weight each country’s correlation by the number of years on which it is based. And in Panel C, we weight each country’s correlation by the total number of observations in our database. (We weight both the length of the observation window and the number of time series for income inequality.) For reference, we’ve also plotted the correlations for individual countries as points, with size indicating weight.

Figure 5: Summarizing the power-inequality correlation within countries. This figure shows three different ways to summarize the within-country correlations between the power index and the top 1% income share. In each panel, we show the country-level correlations as points. We’ve used size to indicate the weight given to each country. (And we’ve added vertical ‘jitter’ in the points so that they do not overlap.) Then we summarize the distribution of this data using a box plot. In Panel A, we assign equal weight to each country. In Panel B, we assign weight according the number of years of observation per country. And in Panel C, we assign weight according to the dataset size per country, which includes multiple time series for the top 1% income share.(How to read a box plot: the ‘box’ represents the range of the middle 50% of data. The vertical line indicates the median. And the horizontal lines show the range of data, excluding outliers.)

Regardless of how we weight our results, we find that the power-inequality correlation is mostly positive. But what is interesting is that when we weight for data quantity, the correlation becomes more positive. Weighting for the number of years of observation shifts the box plot to the right. And weighting for the total dataset size shifts it even more.

Why might this be?

One possibility is that there is something unique about the countries for which we have the most data. Alternatively, it could be that weighting for data quantity highlights data quality. In other words, countries that have more data might give a better representation of the ‘true’ relation between the power index and income inequality. That said, to understand why weighting for data quantity increases the power-inequality correlation, we need to … gather more data.

More generally, we should note that there are basic limitations of the power index itself. The problem, in a nutshell, is that capitalism is a global system, but the power index is a national measurement. By construction, the power index defines capitalist power in terms of a national stock market. Yet local elites need not invest solely in national stock. Germany elites, for example, could own stocks listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. And Canadian elites could own stocks listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange.

To complicate things further, the ‘nationality’ of large firms is not easy to pin down. Many multinational corporations have headquarters outside the United States, yet are nonetheless listed on the S&P 500, which is ostensibly a ‘US stock index’. And regardless of ‘nationality’, S&P 500 firms as a whole earn more than half of their profit outside the United States.

In short, the global nature of capitalism means that national estimates of capitalist power are necessarily incomplete. So when possible, we should attempt to move beyond the nation-state.

With the global nature of capitalism in mind, we switch gears now to look at cross-country trends in the power index and income inequality.

We start with some caveats. When working with international data, a common approach is to directly compare values between countries. For instance, if we were studying the connection between energy use and GDP, we’d plot each country’s energy use per capita against its GDP per capita. If the two variables were related, we’d see a correlation across countries.

Unfortunately, we cannot use this method to test the sabotage hypothesis. The problem is that the power index is based on stock-market data that is not meant to be directly compared. You cannot, for instance, directly contrast the value of Japan’s Nikkei 225 index with the value of the American S&P 500. (In science speak, the two indexes have different units.) What you can do, however, is compare the relative movement of the two indexes. It is this type of comparison that you hear daily in the financial press. (As in ‘the S&P is up 5%, while the Nikkei is down 2%.’)

We can apply the same thinking to the power index. Although we cannot compare the power index’s absolute value across countries, we can compare its movement. With that in mind, let’s turn to Figure 6A. Here we have plotted the average movement of the power index across our sample of countries. (In this average, we give equal weight to each country. Note, though, that the size of the sample changes with time, as shown in Figure 6C.)

Figure 6: Cross-country trends in the power index and income inequality. In this figure, we measure the average trend in the power index (Panel A) and top 1% share of income (Panel B) across our sample of 42 countries. The blue and red lines indicate the cross-country mean of our sample, weighted equally by country. The shaded region indicates the sample standard deviation. The dashed-horizontal lines indicate the expected mean — the value we expect if there was no co-movement between countries. Panel C shows the size of our sample by year. [Sources and methods]

Looking at Figure 6A, let’s start with what is most interesting: the fact that there is any long-term trend in the average power index. The presence of this pattern indicates that the power index tends to move cohesively across countries. (If the power index did not move cohesively, its average would fluctuate randomly around the dashed horizontal line.) Also intriguing is the form of the long-term trend. It follows a U shape — decreasing until the 1980s, and increasing thereafter.

If you follow recent research in income inequality, the power index’s U-shaped trend should be familiar. This pattern first appeared two decades ago, when economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez measured the long-term history of US inequality. The U shape became famous when Piketty popularized his research in 2014. And since then, the weight of evidence behind this trend has only grown stronger.

With the U shape in mind, let’s turn to Figure 6B. Here we have plotted the average inequality trend across our sample of 42 countries. (We’ve measured the average income share of the top 1%, weighted equally by country.) Again, what is surprising is that there is any long-term pattern. Given the complexities of national politics, it seems reasonable that inequality would have no coherent trend across countries. And yet it does. Moreover, the long-term trend mirrors the pattern found in the power index.

Although we should treat the trends in Figure 6 with appropriate uncertainty, it’s worth speculating about the significance of the U-shaped pattern. It effectively divides the last century into two periods:

  1. Before 1980, during which the power index and income inequality both declined;
  2. After 1980, during which the power index and income inequality both increased.

What is so important about the year 1980? The answer is obviously complicated, but can perhaps be summarized as follows: during the 1980s, there was a seismic change in the world order.

Let’s start with politics. Prior to the 1980s, there was a tense ideological battle between capitalism and communism. Frightened by the specter of communism, capitalist leaders sought to keep workers happy, leading to the expansion of the welfare state. But by the 1980s, capitalist cheerleaders had started to declare victory. (Remember Margaret Thatcher’s slogan “There is no alternative.”) The formal celebration came in 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed. With the ‘evil empire’ gone, neoliberalism became the de facto dogma of global elites. Social-safety nets were bad. Capitalist greed was good.

This shift in global politics also came with more localized changes in capitalist-worker relations. Prior to the 1980s, the labor movement was quite strong. Year after year, it seemed that unions won more rights for workers. After the 1980s, however, unions were beaten back. Union membership plummeted, as did the propensity to strike. Unsurprisingly, wages stagnated. At the same time, the 1980s marked the beginning of a prolonged series of bull markets. Stock prices rose steadily.

All of these trends have been documented before, and their significance debated extensively. That said, we think that Bichler and Nitzan’s theory of capital as power offers a compelling way to connect the evidence. According to this theory, when stocks rise relative to wages, it signals that capitalists are consolidating power. So what we are seeing, in Figure 6A, is a U-shaped trend in global capitalist power.

That trend, it seems, is related to inequality. Figure 6 illustrates the connection. Here we’ve taken the average power index and the average top 1% share of income and plotted them against each other. The correlation is easy to spot.

Figure 7: The power index vs. income inequality, cross-country averages. In this figure, we illustrate the connection between cross-country average of the power index and top 1% share of income. For the individual time series, see Figure 6. [Sources and methods]

Yes, but in theory …

Looking at the evidence, we find a clear connection between Bichler and Nitzan’s power index and the rise and fall of income inequality. We think this evidence is consistent with the sabotage hypothesis — the idea that enforcing corporate property rights is a form of social sabotage.

That said, it’s worth reviewing what other theories might say about this evidence. The answer, we believe, is very little. To review, Bichler and Nitzan’s power index consists of the ratio between a country’s main stock-price index and its average wage. To our knowledge, no one prior to Bichler and Nitzan thought to focus on this ratio.2 Why? Likely because prevailing orthodoxies gave no compelling reason to do so.

Let’s start with neoclassical economics, which is the dominant school of political economy. According to neoclassical theory, stock prices and wages are both measures of ‘productivity’. (Stock prices measure the productivity of capital. And wages measure the productivity of workers.) Since any form of productivity is treated as ‘good’, there is no reason to care about the balance between stock prices and wages.

Although its logic is different, Marxist theory also overlooks the ratio at the heart of the power index. For Marx, stock prices did not indicate the productivity of capital. Instead, stocks were ‘fictitious capital’ that was unrelated to the ‘real’ economy. And since Marx based his theory of capitalism on the ‘real’ production of commodities, it followed that stock prices were of little interest.

In contrast to neoclassical and Marxist theory, Nitzan and Bichler view stock prices as neither ‘fictitious’ nor a measure of productivity. Stock prices, they argue, are an indicator of capitalists’ power to enforce property rights. And this enforcement, they continue, is a form of social ‘sabotage’. From this thinking comes the ‘power index’, and the hypothesis that its ups and downs ought to correlate with the rise and fall of social malaise.

At least when it comes to the ill of income inequality, it appears that Bichler and Nitzan are on the right track.

  1. Ken Zimmerman
    April 9, 2022 at 12:44 pm

    Interesting. But in my humble view, the work of some of the younger historians are not only more well documented but also more useful. One of these is Daniel A. Sjursen. This is the preface to his book, “True History of the United States: Indigenous Genocide, Racialized Slavery, Hyper-Capitalism, Militarist Imperialism and Other Overlooked Aspects of American Exceptionalism.” (2021)

    “Poll after poll demonstrates that year after year Americans’ basic historical knowledge reaches newly obscene lows. This trend takes on increasing urgency when we observe political leaders and senior policy makers direct foreign and domestic affairs in the apparent absence of knowledge of relevant historical context. Frankly, it is embarrassing to watch, and often tragic in its human consequences.

    I was first struck by the severity of this problem when I returned to my alma mater, the United States Military Academy — West Point — to teach freshman (“plebe”) American History 101. I was straight out of graduate school, my sense of the decisive importance of the subject heightened by my tours in Iraq and Afghanistan where I fought in wars begun and waged seemingly without the faintest sense of the region’s history. That the cadets would likely, almost inevitably, form the increasingly militarized vanguard of future US foreign policy only added urgency.

    Most cadets entered West Point having been taught — and thus understanding — a rather flimsy brand of US history. These otherwise gifted students’ understanding of the American past lacked substance or depth and pivoted on patriotic platitudes. Such young men and women hardly knew the history of the country they had volunteered to kill and die for. That, I thought to myself, is how military fiascoes are made.

    Throughout my teaching tenure I set myself the task of bridging — in some modest way — the gap between what scholars know and what students learn. That process and its challenges motivated me to write this book: an enthusiastic attempt to bridge the perhaps unbridgeable — academic and public history. No doubt the project will be found wanting, but there’s inherent value in the quest, in the very struggle. The skeletal geneses of the chapters that follow were the thirty-eight lesson plans I crafted to impart the broad contours of US history to future leaders of an army at war.

    That the often censorious (some will say downright un-American) analyses herein were introduced to presumably patriotic and conservative West Point cadets may seem shocking. That many other history instructors on the faculty presented not altogether dissimilar concepts may be more surprising still. Nonetheless, as Martin Luther King Jr. often warned: We should not confuse dissent with disloyalty. In today’s politically and culturally tribal times, unfortunately, this seems the reflexive response to any manner of disagreement.

    I make no apologies for having presented combat-bound cadets with undeniable dark facts and some critical conclusions common among esteemed scholars. Exposure to the historical myths and flaws — in addition to the well-worn triumphs — of the country they might very well die for seemed appropriate. Anything less would have felt obscene.

    I write this preface amid both a deadly pandemic and widespread demonstrations in communities large and small inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement that have shaken many Americans’ perceptions of the nation’s political and economic systems to the core. Whether these historically unprecedented events will translate into structural or lasting change is unclear, but there’s no better time to translate the version of American History 101 that I taught at West Point to a public audience and to pose the salient question: What, exactly, is exceptional about the United States?

    America is exceptional — not always in ways that should engender patriotic pride, but rather often in ways that should cause us to reflect, take stock, and strive to do better. Plenty of other countries, for instance, sport equally (if not more) free and democratic societies; dozens are healthier and provide superior medical care; some are even more affluent.

    Hardly any, however — particularly in the wealthier “developed” world — have such vast wealth gaps, disparate health services and outcomes, or traditionally weak left-labor parties. Essentially none imprison quite so many of their citizens, militarily garrison the globe, or fight even a fraction as many simultaneous far-flung wars. Even if we were to set aside any associated value judgments, it bears asking why — historically speaking — this is the case.

    Why does the United States have income inequality rates equivalent to those of its Gilded Age more than a century earlier?

    Why didn’t its citizens insist upon, or achieve, universal public health care before — and especially after — the Second World War, when most of its Western allies and even adversaries did?

    Why was there, at least in comparative terms, never a viable socialist or serious labor party alternative in mainstream American politics?

    Why has an unprecedented class- and especially race-based mass incarceration regime developed in the nation that most loudly proclaims its dedication to freedom?

    And why is it the United States wages undeclared warfare across the planet’s entirety?

    Many of the answers actually lie in the past, in the historical development of US politics and society. These aspects of the darkly exceptionalist present can only be understood through — and partly explained by — a better understanding of four ghastly themes underpinning American history but largely glossed over in standard, introductory survey classes: indigenous genocide, racialized slavery, hyper-capitalism, and militarist imperialism.

    Many people loudly claim to hate history, at least as a subject in their schooling. Given the uneven quality of its teachers and consequent presentation, that’s quite understandable. Still, distaste for the history class hardly tempers the inordinate value nearly all Americans place on the concept of history, at least as they choose to understand it. Most people understand themselves, their family, their community, and their nation through the prism of history. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are, the public policy we craft, and even what we imagine possible.

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