Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Hoxie on “Fixed Group Demand Theory” (the “lump of labor”)

From Robert F. Hoxie, Trade Unionism in the United States, 1917:

There is much scorn of unionists by economists and employers because of this lump of labor theory with its corollaries. This scorn is based on the classical supply and demand theory and its variants. Supply is demand. Increased efficiency in production means an increase of social dividend and increased shares, which in turn increase production and saving. Therefore, the workers cut off their own noses when they limit output or limit numbers. The classical position is undoubtedly valid when applied to society as a whole, if there is any such thing, and in the long run. But the trouble is that, so far as the workers are concerned, there is no society as a whole, and no long run, but immediate need and rival social groups. 

The fixed group demand theory is as follows: The demand for the labor of the group is determined by the demand for the commodity output of the group. The community—wealth and distribution remaining the same—has a fairly fixed money demand for the commodities of a group. It will devote about a given proportion of its purchasing power to these commodities, that is, if the prices of the group commodity are higher, it will buy less units and vice versa, but expend about the same purchasing power. Therefore, the demand for the labor of the group, profits remaining the same, is practically fixed, and increasing the group commodity output means simply conferring a benefit on the members of other groups as consumers without gain to the group itself. Therefore, to increase the efficiency and the output of the group will not increase the group labor demand and group wages. Decreasing the efficiency and output of the group will not decrease the group labor demand and the group wage. 

Increasing the number of workers tends to decrease their bargaining strength relatively and to lower the total wage and the wage rate. Increasing the efficiency and the output of the workers is equivalent to increasing the group labor supply, and so tends to lower the group wage and the wage rate. Decreasing the number of workers tends to increase their bargaining strength relatively and so to increase the group wage and the wage rate. Decreasing the efficiency and output of the workers tends to increase their bargaining strength relatively and so to increase the group wage and the wage rate. The introduction of labor saving devices is equivalent to increasing the labor supply and so lowering the wage rate. Limitation of output through shorter hours, etc., i.e., decreasing the supply of labor, increases bargaining strength and tends to increase the wage. Strikes and trade union insurance funds are means of temporarily withdrawing labor supply and so of increasing bargaining strength and increasing wages. In practice the group demand theory is simply the application by the unions of the principle of monopoly, admittedly valid. But this theory only in part explains union efforts to limit both individual and group efficiency and output and to limit numbers. These policies in part rest on other theories and considerations. 

Robert F. Hoxie committed suicide on June 22, 1916. For an overview of his important but neglected contribution to economic thought see Charles R. McCann Jr. and Vibha Kapuria-Foreman, “Robert Franklin Hoxie: The Contributions of a Neglected Chicago Economist” Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology, Volume 34B, 2016.

Comments (0) | |

“One Hundred Percent” Fake News

“One Hundred Percent” Fake News

No, uh-uh, false, wrong.

Trump: I’m ’100 percent’ willing to testify under oath — The Hill-2 hours ago

Trump: I’m willing to testify under oath about Comey claims — CNN-3 hours ago

Trump willing to testify to counter Comey under oath — Talk Media News-35 minutes ago

Trump Says He’d Testify Under Oath About Comey — Featured-The Atlantic-2 hours ago

Donald Trump did not say he was one hundred percent willing to testify under oath. He replied to a question about testifying with a word salad of obfuscation that contained the phrases “one hundred percent” and “under oath” but did not connect the two in any coherent way. Read the eff’in’ transcript:

Trump’s “one-hundred percent” is free floating. His two uses of the phrase “under oath” indicate that a misinterpretation or pretended misinterpretation of the question as being whether he asked Comey to pledge his loyalty under oath. So his “one hundred percent” is simply a one hundred percent denial that he demanded that Comey pledge allegiance to him under oath. There is no commitment in the exchange to testify under oath.

Of course, even if Trump had committed one hundred percent to testifying under oath, there would be no way to compel him to honor his commitment and he almost certainly would not do so.

Trump will not testify under oath and he will not release his tax returns.

Comments (9) | |

“It Depends on How We They Value Time”

Peter Dorman calls attention to a NYT Upshot column by Neil Irwin about the cost of climate change. For Irwin, the question can be framed as a matter of discounting, “A dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow and a lot more than a dollar in 100 years. But what discount rate you set determines how much more.”

As Irwin admits, the discount rate is a “business concept.” His conclusion, then, follows exclusively from a business concept of “how, as a society, we count the value of time.” Why are we compelled, as a society, to count the value of time in accordance with the business concept of discounting? Because there is no other concept of time? No, there are other concepts of time. More specifically, there is a concept of time directly opposed to and critical of the business concept of time. Labor time.

What discounting is to the business concept of time, alienation is to the labor concept of time. Alienation refers not to “feelings” of alienation but to the sale of one’s own time — and consequently autonomy — to another.

For every human being — as for the wage worker — there are 24 hours in a day,  168 hours in a week, 8760 or 8784 hours in a year. These are fixed amounts. You can’t put it in a bank and get it back in 20 years with interest. You can’t take it with you and you can’t convey it to your heirs in a will. Today is here today and gone tomorrow.

The discount rate concept has nothing to do with the qualitative experience of time by humans and everything to do with the quantitative accumulation of money by property owners. Framing the cost of climate change as a contest between different discount rates is totalitarian. We live in a totalitarian society in which the non-business concept of time is invisible. Neil Irwin sounds like a thoughtful person. It simply didn’t occur to him that there was any other relevant concept of time than the business concept.

That is why the climate is changing. And that is why not enough will be done about it. Because it all depends on how capital values time.

Comments (17) | |

Fighting Zombies with Zombies

Fighting Zombies with Zombies

Larry Mishel and Josh Bivens enlist zombie government policy ponies in their battle against “the zombie robot argument“:

Technological change and automation absolutely can, and have, displaced particular workers in particular economic sectors. But technology and automation also create dynamics (for example, falling relative prices of goods and services produced with fewer workers) that help create jobs in other sectors. And even when automation’s job-generating and job-displacing forces don’t balance out, government policy can largely ensure that automation does not lead to rising overall unemployment.

The catch here is that the displacement of workers by technology and the investment that re-absorbs workers displaced by technology are largely, but not entirely, independent factors. “Government policy” in the quoted paragraph is just another name for investment. Hans Neisser observed in his 1942 article on technological unemployment that “it is impossible to predict the outcome of the race between the two [investment and displacement] on purely theoretical grounds.”

The conclusion is inevitable: there is no mechanism within the framework of rational economic analysis that, in any situation, would secure the full absorption of displaced workers and render “permanent” technological unemployment in any sense impossible.

The “robot apocalypse” is neither impossible nor inevitable. It is probably unlikely, but unlikely things do happen, especially when people become complacent about the impossibility of unlikely things happening.

Comments (0) | |

Output Optimum and the Roller Coaster of Immiseration

Following up on my post from two weeks ago, Immiseration Revisited, I built a spreadsheet replica of the marvelous Chapman diagram. In addition to lines on the page, the replica provides me with tables of numbers that I can add, subtract, multiply and divide in accordance with the conceptual logic of the diagram.

The chart below shows the results of some of these calculations. The red curve graphs cumulative gross “output” and green curve subtracts the value of foregone leisure and the pain cost of fatigue and wear and tear from output to calculate net “income” (green). The length of each vertical line measures the values of output and income, respectively for a work week of the length indicated by the scale on the x-axis.

“Big Dipper”: the Roller Coaster of Immiseration

I have set the hypothetical “output optimum” work week at 48 hours in deference to the diagram’s 1909 vintage. Assuming such an optimum and taking the conceptual diagram’s proportions literally, the ideal length of a work week for a laborer would be 36 hours. That is the point at which the value of foregone leisure and the pain cost of additional work begin to outweigh the additional earnings from the longer week. A workweek of 40 hours marks the threshold beyond which the value of foregone leisure alone exceeds the additional wage earnings.

If the optimal output workweek was 40 hours, the corresponding ideal length of workweek for the worker would be 30 hours, again assuming the reasonableness of the diagram’s proportions. There is, of course, only impressionistic evidence for the general shape of the curves and not for the accuracy of the proportions depicted. Nevertheless, the derived calculations indicate a steep acceleration of the discrepancy between output and worker welfare beginning well in advance of the output optimum.

Calculations based on the diagram suggest that by working 34 percent more hours per week, the employee can look forward to “enjoying” 29 percent LESS net benefit. If the actual cost to workers of working longer is even half or a third of those estimates, this still would represent a significant deviation not only from what Lionel Robbins dismissed as “the naïve assumption that the connection between hours and output is one of direct variation” but also from the equally indefensible premise of a consistently proportional relationship between work effort and reward.

(Most) Economists Balk

In a recent article, “Whose preferences are revealed in hours of work,” John Pencavel noted the “radical change in economist’s thinking about working hours” following the 1957 publication of H. Gregg Lewis’s article, “Hours of Work and Hours of Leisure,” Earlier textbooks attributed reductions in hours to pressure from trade unions, either directly through collective bargaining or by legislation promoted by organized labor. The earlier textbooks also addressed the effect that hours of work have on productivity, with reductions in hours usually leading to increases in hourly output and sometimes even to “no decline in total daily output.”

In later textbooks, the orthodoxy followed Lewis’s explanation that workers choose their own hours, based on their preferences for income or leisure. The connection between output and shorter hours vanished, as did the role of trade unions in achieving reductions of working time. But, Pencavel wondered, “If ‘employers are completely indifferent with respect to the hours of work schedules of their employees,’ [as Lewis had posited] why did employers oppose so resolutely workers’ calls for shorter hours?”

In a footnote, Pencavel also mentioned that in Lewis’s 1957 model, employers face no obstacle “to replacing shorter hours per worker with more workers.” This is an interesting point because many economists’ arguments against the employment potential of shorter working time rest on claims that workers and hours are not suitable substitutes. That conclusion is reached by smuggling back in the output/hours relationship concealed in a Cobb-Douglas production function with the Robbins/Hicks “simplifying assumption” that the current hours of work are optimal for output, so that any reduction of hours would result in a reduction of output. It is difficult to imagine how both of these things can be true at the same time.

Although the earlier textbooks and economists acknowledged the connection between hours of work and output, most were silent on the discrepancy — or at least the magnitude of the discrepancy — between an output optimum and worker welfare. Cecil Pigou, Philip Sargant Florence, Lionel Robbins, John Hicks and Edward Denison treated the output optimum as the economic ideal. Richard Lester and Lloyd Reynolds, authors of “institutionalist” labor economics textbooks, showed more sympathy to trade union arguments but did not emphasize the discrepancy between the output optimum and worker welfare.

Sydney Chapman clearly distinguished analytically between worker welfare and the output optimum but his presentation was obscured by digressions that dwelt on shift-work as a palliative and on the philosophical necessity of paying more attention to the non-tangible aspects of culture. Clyde Dankert clearly distinguished between the output optimum and worker welfare but had the rather eccentric view that although “maximization of worker satisfactions” rather than output should be the social objective, shorter hours would have to be postponed “in view of the current cold war situation.” Only Maurice Dobb clearly and concisely stated what was at stake (although he left out the increasing value of leisure):

…trade unionists in the nineteenth century were severely castigated by economists for adhering, it was alleged, to a vicious ‘Work Fund’ fallacy, which held that there was a limited amount of work to go round and that workers could benefit themselves by restricting the amount of work they did. But the argument as it stands is incorrect. It is not aggregate earnings which are the measure of the benefit obtained by the worker, but his earnings in relation to the work he does — to his output of physical energy or his bodily wear and tear. Just as an employer is interested in his receipts compared with his outgoings, so the worker is presumably interested in what he gets compared with what he gives. A man who works longer hours or is put on piece-rates, and increases the intensity of his work as a result, may earn more money in the course of the week; but he is also suffering more fatigue, and probably requires to spend more on food and recreation and perhaps on doctor’s bills.

To compare “what s/he gets” with “what s/he gives” requires above all some way of estimating the value of what is given relative to what is being received. One may even suggest that constructing those estimates was the job economists should have been doing instead of castigating trade unionists and other advocates of shorter hours for adhering to a vicious “lump-of-labor” fallacy. Heck of a job, economists!

Comments (9) | |

The “Tapes” Threat

by Sandwichman

The “Tapes” Threat

This may be so obvious it needs no explanation — but allow me to explain. This tweet puts on notice anyone who has a conversation with the POTUS that whatever they say MAY be recorded and selectively “leaked” for the purpose of blackmail, extortion and/or intimidation.

That should be an effective strategy for ensuring candid, confidential communication and advice. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan may be too stupid to realize the implications or too corrupt to care but there is no putting this genie back in the bottle.

Comments (15) | |

Immiseration Revisited: The four phases of working time

Is there a neo-classical theory of immiseration?
Below is the marvelous Chapman hours of labor diagram (follow the link for a more detailed explanation). It looks complicated but it really only contains four curves representing, roughly, long-term and short-term productivity, income [correction: actually income minus the value of leisure foregone] and fatigue. But there is more to it than Chapman realized or that I have previously noticed.

The context for this diagram is William Stanley Jevons’s discussion of work effort in his Theory of Political Economy:

A few hours’ work per day may be considered agreeable rather than otherwise; but so soon as the overflowing energy of the body is drained off, it becomes irksome to remain at work. As exhaustion approaches, continued effort becomes more and more intolerable.

The “L” curve in Chapman’s diagram echoes the lower curve in Jevons’s figure VIII, presented to illustrate the “painfulness of labour in proportion to produce”:

In this diagram the height of points above the line ox denotes pleasure, and depth below it pain. At the moment of commencing labour it is usually more irksome than when the mind and body are well bent to the work. Thus, at first, the pain is measured by oa. At b there is neither pain nor pleasure. Between b and c an excess of pleasure is represented as due to the exertion itself. But after c the energy begins to be rapidly exhausted, and the resulting pain is shown by the downward tendency of the line cd.

Chapman was primarily concerned with the length of the day optimal for output, which would be measured on the X axis of his diagram by the distance Ob. The optimal working day from the workers’ perspective, however, would be On and would terminate at the point where the marginal income from another time unit of work would just equal the marginal pain of working.

But the intervals from n to i and from i to b add another dimension to the diagram that has been overlooked. From n to i the worker gives up proportionally more in work effort than he or she receives in extra income. Finally, during the interval from i to b, workers endure additional pain in exchange for a decrease in total income. Beyond b, the incomes of both workers and employers are reduced.

The four phases of working time can be labeled cooperation, exploitation, immiseration and ruin. The incentive for employers is to progress inexorably toward the last phase unless regulated by legislation or collective bargaining. The following animation illustrates the contrast between the workers’ gains (green) and losses from lengthening of the working day and the employers’ gains (blue) and loses.

The conflict between labor and capital over the length of the working day can also be illustrated less kinetically by the following close-up of the X axis from Chapman’s diagram. The green arrows indicate income gains, the red arrows income losses or pain cost:

The bottom line, showing the social aggregate, indicates that the income gain for capital at the optimal point b for output is essentially a transfer of income from labor, which also has to invest additional work effort to accomplish that transfer. Up to the output optimum point there is a small net surplus of income that is, however, dwarfed by the quantity of work effort pain cost required to generate it. This does not even qualify for the Kaldor-Hicks compensation criteria. From capital’s perspective, however, the small net return and larger transfer appears to be all simply gain from expanded output — growth is good! (Just don’t look under the hood).

Chapman gave no indication of being aware of the immiseration implications of his analysis. John Hicks gave even clearer indication that he was not aware of the immiseration implications of Chapman’s analysis. Hicks observed that “it had never entered the heads of most employers that it was at all conceivable that hours could be shortened and output maintained” but asserted that trade unions “will not usually need to exert any considerable pressure in order to bring about a reduction” in circumstances where the working day exceeded the output optimum. As if workers should be content to be ground down into wretched poverty provided they didn’t drag their employer down with them! The output optimum is not a good place on the X axis for workers to be.

Only the Marxist economist, Maurice Dobb, appears to have noticed the importance of the relationship between wages and “the worker’s expenditure of energy and his ‘wear and tear.’”

What was implied in the economists’ retort to the advocates of the so-called Work-Fund leads to the apparent paradox that the more the workers allow themselves to be exploited, the more their aggregate earnings will increase (at least in the long run), even if the result is for the earnings of the propertied class to increase still faster. And on this base is erected a doctrine of social harmony between the classes. But it does not follow that the workers will prefer to be exploited to a maximum degree, or that attempts to limit this exploitation are based on fallacious reasoning.

There is no scale on the Chapman diagram and this turns out to be a useful feature. Different occupations, technologies, individuals and wage levels generate a variety of scales. One could conceive of aggregating these scales either in an overall average or clustered in quintile or decile groups. The latter procedure would be valuable in exploring whether a substantial number of workers were being pushed into conditions of immiseration even though the overall average was still safely in the exploitation range.

It is worth remarking that based on the relative length of the segments in Chapman’s diagram, the optimal length of the day for workers would be less that 72 percent of the optimal output day. For example, if the optimal length of the workweek for output was 48 hours, the optimal week for workers would be 34.4 hours. Of course Chapman’s diagram is not based on empirical measurement but Chapman had investigated in depth the extensive statistical and experimental data available at the time he was formulating his theory, so, while his proportions cannot be assumed to be precise they probably represent an informed impression — a ballpark estimate — of general relationships.

In conclusion, yes, there is a neo-classical immiseration theory. The economists who propounded it apparently were unaware that it was such a theory. By extension, that immiseration theory is a crisis theory. There is no built-in mechanism of negative feedback from prices that militates against the passage from the immiseration phase to the ruin phase. Hicks assumed that a “very moderate degree of rationality on the part of employers will thus lead them to reduce hours to the output optimum as soon as Trade Unionism has to be reckoned with at all seriously [emphasis added].” But by the time exploitation has progressed to the immiseration phase, trade unionism doesn’t have to be “reckoned with at all seriously” by employers. The trade unions would already have been defeated somewhere between point n and point b on the Chapman diagram’s X axis.

Comments (0) | |

May Day: Shorter hours — If not now, when?

The litany of shorter work week prophecy is prodigious. Keynes famously predicted a 15-hour work week for “our grandchildren” in 1930. Fifteen years later, in a letter to T.S. Eliot, Keynes parenthetically suggested a 35-hour work week for the U.S. in the immediate post-war period.

In 1961, Clyde Dankert cited a New York Times article from 1949 in which a “well known labor economist” predicted a 20-hour work week by 1990 and a ten hour week by 2050. Eight years later, a vocational educator forecast the 20-hour week by 2000. Also in 1961, Dankert himself suggested 1980 as the year by which, “the thirty-hour workweek should be widely established and some progress made toward the twenty-five-hour week.” Three years later, he was somewhat more circumspect, “In time we should reach the 30-hour week and even the 25-hour week, but despite all the talk about the leisure society, that time is not now and will not be for quite some years.

In a 1957 newsletter, First National City Bank of New York calculated that it would take 31 years to achieve a 32-hour work week if productivity increased at an average of between two and three percent a year and if workers chose to take the benefits in the same proportions of wages and hours as they had from 1909 to 1941. Alternatively, a four-day work week could be attained in eight years if productivity gains were applied exclusively to work time reduction. A similar calculation had been made by Fortune editor, Daniel Seligman in 1954:

A calculation made by Fortune for the years since 1929 suggests that in the past quarter-century U.S. workers have been taking about 60 per cent of the productivity pie in the form of income, about 40 per cent as leisure. Assuming that the four-day week for non-agricultural employees will be attained when the total work week is in the vicinity of 32 hours, that productivity continues to increase at an average of 2 or 3 per cent a year, and that something on the order of the recent 60-40 ratio for income and leisure continues in effect, the 32-hour week should be spread throughout the whole non-farm economy in about 25 years.

As did the City Bank forecast, Seligman noted that the shorter work week could be achieved even sooner if workers were willing to forego wage increases.

In fact, productivity gains from 1954 to 1979 averaged 2.4 percent per year. From 1957 to 1988, annual productivity gains averaged 2.2 percent. Assuming 40 percent of actual historical productivity gains, ten paid holidays, and four weeks annual vacation, a 32-hour workweek should have been realized by around 1990 — aside from the likelihood that progressive reduction of the hours of work would have accelerated productivity gains.

Using the same assumptions, the work week in 2016 should be around 26 hours. Or perhaps people would prefer to continue with the 32-hour week and take three months annual vacation. These calculations overlook the fact that reduction of the hours of work had already stagnated in the early post-war period. If we backdate the 40 percent of productivity reduction to 1950, the 32-hour mark could have been reached seven years earlier.

Edward Denison estimated that 10% of historical productivity gains could be attributed directly to hours reduction. The chart below factors in that additional 10% productivity gain and compares actual average annual hours, 1950 – 2015 with potential hours if reduced according to Seligman’s and Denison’s assumptions:

But you can’t have it now. You just can’t. How about a tax cut for the richest, instead?

Comments (14) | |

It was actually quite amusing to see an article in my provincial newspaper a while back where two sides were arguing about a reduction in the work week, and you could play bingo with the excuses the anti-side used. There wasn’t an original idea in the whole article, as the pro-side was almost apologizing and got one paragraph of the six on offer. – “Salty,” comment at AngryBear.

Comments (0) | |

The Boundless Thirst for Surplus-Labor

September 22, 1956

November 7, 1960

QUESTION. This is from Mr. White, Warren, Mich.

What is your stand on the 32-hour workweek?

Vice President NIXON: Well, the 32-hour workweek just isn’t a possibility at the present time. I made a speech back in the 1956 campaign when I indicated that as we went into the period of automation, that it was inevitable that the workweek was going to be reduced, that we could look forward to the time in America when we might have a 4-day week, but we can’t have it now. We can’t have it now for the reason that we find, that as far as automation is concerned, both because of the practices of business and labor, we do not have the efficiency yet developed to the point that reducing the workweek would not result in a reduction of production. The workweek can only be reduced at a time when reduction of the workweek will not reduce efficiency and will not reduce production.

It’s inevitable… but we can’t have it.

Dick Nixon’s turnaround on the issue of the four-day workweek was epic. His original prediction of  a four-day week “in the not too distant future” came in a prepared speech, not in some unguarded moment of overheated campaign hyperbole. He even disclaimed that his “projections” were not “dreams or idle boasts” but were based on the continuation of President Eisenhower’s economic policies.

Following up on Nixon’s 1956 prediction, United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther responded with a telegram calling on the administration to outline a legislative program to achieve the shorter workweek. Nixon sent a telegram in reply and President Eisenhower endorsed Nixon’s reply in a press conference on September 28.

Nixon’s reply was that “mere artificial legislation” would not accomplish a four-day workweek. What was necessary was “dedicated joint efforts of labor, management, government and research.” For his part, Eisenhower “saw nothing wrong with” Nixon’s answer, which he thought also represented his own view that it would be “wonderful” to have more leisure time, but that “no man can say it is going to come about because I say so.” A month after his first comment, Nixon reaffirmed his expectation of a shorter workweek, based on partnership between government, business and labor.

The adamant wording of Nixon’s 1960 dismissal of the idea takes on added resonance in the context of Eisenhower’s earlier caveat that “no man can say it is going to come about because I say so.” Four years later, it “just isn’t a possibility… we can’t have it now. We can’t have it now… [because I say so].”

This wouldn’t be the first time that self-contradiction has appeared in the rhetoric of opposition to shorter work time. The Sandwichman has amassed the world’s largest collection of lame excuses offered by opponents. I assembled 21 of them and sorted them into eight categories having to do with productivity, new consumer wants, unsatisfied needs, labor costs, government policy, self-adjusting markets, history and inevitability, and the devious motives of proponents.

To be kind, the rationales are opportunistic. Mostly, they are jejune partial equilibrium statements invoked as if they were eternal verities. More bluntly, they are mendacious. Every single reason given for not shortening the hours of work is complemented by a contradictory reason for not shortening the hours of work. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Comments (12) | |