Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

The Death Spiral of Capitalism

July 24th, 2013
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    1) The Declining Rate of Profit

The early major theorists of capitalism, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx, all predicted that the rate of profit of capitalist enterprises should fall, as a general trend over time.

Each reached this conclusion in his own way. Adam Smith derived it from increased competition; David Ricardo from rising rent costs. Karl Marx was able to show that the greater the proportion of fixed capital (eg machinery) to variable capital (eg labor costs) in an investment, the lower the profitability. Marx’s theory has the most explanatory power, but the fact that other theorists reached a similar result is not insignificant — all predicted that the graph would trend downward toward an eventual 0% rate of profit.

History, too, has proved the correctness of this prediction. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall can be seen quite clearly today; the attempts of capitalists to mask it merely demonstrate that it is a reality they cannot alter.

    2) Masking the Decline

The first method is depressing wages. Over the last several decades in the USA, the bottom sixty percent of earners have suffered real wage losses, while the sixty-to-eighty percenters have remained stagnant. Reducing labor’s share of production has allowed enterprises to keep their profits up, even while profitability declines.
Fact: average real wages for private non-agricultural industries peaked in 1972 and are 14% below peak today. (1)

The second method is debt. Also over the last several decades, consumer and student debt have grown at astronomical rates. Extension of credit has helped working people retain an approximation of their standard of living, and helped keep up demand for products and services – of course, at a price.
Fact: total American credit card debt is $856.5 billion, mortgage debt is $7.86 trillion, and student loans are $999.3 billion. (2)

The third method is government intervention. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall makes the economic system increasingly unstable and enterprises increasingly precarious. To counter the inevitable breakdowns, the government has propped up the system via direct intervention. The size of these bailouts, from the early 1970s through the latest financial rescue, has been increasing.
Fact: $328.6 billion in bailouts 1970-1995, $1.78 trillion in bailouts 1995-2013 (all in 2008 dollars). (3)

These methods are all adaptations to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Their function is to try to preserve profit by shifting the burden of capital’s need to expand onto workers – by lower wages, debt-financed consumption, and bailouts using public funds.

And still — the economy’s growth slows.
Fact: USA average yearly GDP growth 1970-1979: 10.3%, 1980-1989: 7.7%, 1990-1999: 5.6%, 2000-2009: 4.0%, 2010-2013: 3.8%. (4)

    3) Over-Accumulation of Capital

Investments generate profit. Capital piles up. It needs an investment outlet. That is why a necessary symptom of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is increased financialization.

As the prospects of productive investments go down, speculation on commodities becomes relatively more attractive and increases. Capital flows away from production in a self-reinforcing process – as more capital flows to commodities, the potential for profitable commodity trading increases, attracting more capital. Oil, wheat, gold, housing etc. up through complex financial instruments like derivatives come to represent an increasing portion of investment, and become subject to increasing fluctuations.

Financial capital chases financial capital. The portion of the economy made up by the finance sector increases.
Fact: the financial sector made up 8.6% of GDP in 2011, quadrupling its share from the 1950s. It made more than 30% of corporate profits on the year. (5)

In short, capitalism begins to smother production and consumption – the “real” economy – through a game of false values created by financialization.

At the same time, increasingly difficult profits induce monopoly structures in markets. Thin profit prospects make economies of scale increasingly decisive. Small enterprises are usually bankrupted first in severe crises, and are less likely to be bailed out. At the same time, lack of attractive investment gives big firms more incentive to use their resources to try to guarantee profit (at the expense of consumers and competitors) by strangling competition.

Exponential growth and mergers help to create increasingly monopolistic market structures over time. However, it is not only a natural tendency of capitalism, but one that is accelerated by the political power of the large enterprises. Through legislation, government contracts, and the ability to command a bailout, the large enterprises enhance their advantage.

In fact, many large enterprises now generate more revenues annually than mid-sized states do tax revenue. Resources are the basis of power, so it is safe to say, that corporations are increasingly more powerful than states.
Fact: Exxon-Mobil Corporation has yearly revenues of $482 billion, while Sweden’s 2011 total tax revenue was $239.6 billion, and Spain’s was $467.2 billion. (6) (7)

    4) Escaping the Death Spiral

The last time capitalism reached such an advanced stage of its death spiral of falling rate of profit and over-accumulation of capital, was in the period leading up to WW2. The Second World War provided an escape through the massive destruction of capital and enterprises. That reset the rate of profit to an earlier, higher level.

Today, with our more advanced weaponry, World War is not an option. It is only an escape from the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, inasmuch as it is an escape from human life and civilization on the planet.

Some say technological growth will come to the rescue of the world economy. Technology always grows – that has not stopped the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The internet boom did not prevent slowed growth.

Others point to third-world development as a panacea. Opening new markets is indeed one of the few ways that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, derived from the over-accumulation of capital, can be overcome. But this is only a temporary shot in the arm. Profits from new markets translate into additional capital accumulation, driving profit decline. Ever more intense doses of the drug are needed, and in the end there is no way to provide enough – the world is of finite size.

Capitalist theoreticians have been working hard to keep the system afloat. The amount of economic understanding and skillful manipulation of the markets and economy has increased magnitudes since the Great Depression. But the skill and technique of an expert doctor cannot save the life of a terminal patient – only extend it. And, as extending the life of someone dying can sometimes be inflicting misery, prolonging the current system is to inflict agony on its suffering masses.

The current system has reached the end of its historical usefulness.

The so-called “creative destruction” of the market, already a blind anarchy with a high human cost, no longer serves its nominal purpose of removing failures to make way for new growth – witness the bailouts. Those financial elites who claimed to deserve their ludicrous salaries because they were such great winners and economic sages were revealed as losers dependent on the workers whose labor they profit off not just for work, but for public bailout. The beautiful system of competitive firms ensuring efficiency they claim to wisely guide is in actuality populated by zombie behemoths run by failures.

The rate of profit falls – and they have no answer; no way to ensure growth. Instead they are compelled to smother the economy in financialization and to push workers down further and further, to try to keep making profits.

What is needed is a transformation of economy and politics so that abundance is shared by all, and so that growth can be revitalized stronger than before, based on rational planning to meet the needs of the entire population.

That transformation will not achieve itself. History has proved it a utopian optimism to think that capitalism itself can achieve it, or that at a certain time the common sense of such a transformation will make it inevitable. The realistic view is that it will only occur when the power of the class with an interest in preserving the profit system is broken by the power of another, stronger class, that aims to abolish it.

(1) http://www.middleclasspoliticaleconomist.com/2012/03/basics-real-wages-remain-below-their.html
(2) http://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/credit-card-data/average-credit-card-debt-household/
(3) http://www.propublica.org/special/government-bailouts
(4) http://www.multpl.com/us-gdp-growth-rate/table/by-year
(5) http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2011/12/14/389487/financial-sector-gdp-recession/
(6) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_companies_by_revenue
(7) http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?QueryId=21699

July Update – Current Employment

July 15th, 2013
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Current Employment

Early this year, I left Chess.com after just over four years spent teaching, entertaining, designing features, marketing, and working with the chess community. After such a long period of working long hours, almost without a break, I decided to take a bit of a break and consider what I wanted to do next with my life.

Although I am no longer as optimistic as I was then about my talents, my child-hood dream was to be a writer, and I concluded that this was the time to dedicate myself to that endeavor.

It’s been a couple months now, and here are two things I’ve found:
– Working on two projects at once is working out just as well as I imagined: I don’t lose my focus by having 8 things to think about; nor do I get bored and frustrated being forced to plug away at a single thing all the time.
– Writing is even harder than I imagined, and in both 4-hour and 3-hour blocks I noticed a sharp decline in productivity along with fatigue towards the end. Best has been 1.5-2 hours at a time. After 20-30 minutes of garden work, I’m good to get back at it.

The two projects I am currently working on are:
– A collection of essays, as is pretty obvious from this site itself. I am publishing drafts of the essays up here for feedback.
– A novel, in collaboration with a friend. We alternate writing chapters between meetings where we plot out the next several chapters, discuss character developments, and give each other feedback on what we have written so far.

The other projects that I have in mind to possibly get to at some point include:
– a non-fiction book about the chess world (for which I have more than 50% of the first draft).
– a collection of rap songs on social issues
– a collection of rap songs about the chess world
– a collection of short stories (fiction)
– a novel

I should add that not only has writing proven extremely challenging, but it has been interesting and rewarding!

The other project that has been taking some of my time is learning to grow food– one of the first practical skills I’ve ever sought to acquire. First we planted seedlings in egg cartons; then friends gifted us a bunch of small starter plants. We build a planter, and some other make-shift plant boxes, bought some soil to help get started, and then tended the plants carefully for two months. Almost all of them have been thriving– lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mint, basil, squash, green beans, kale… It has been a deeply satisfying experience both to nurture cute buds all the way to adult plants nearly my size, and to gather food in our yard and eat it. I feel much more like a living being, using my body and mind, than I did before leading a 99% intellectual (and largely online) existence.

Celebrating Independence

July 5th, 2013
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Yesterday (July 3rd) on a bus I overheard a person on their cell phone: “I’m not celebrating that! My ancestors were slaves, man, we didn’t get any kind of independence!” I relayed this perspective to a friend, and their response was: “yeah, not only the slaves, but very few people gained any real independence or freedom from the American Revolution; basically if you were a property owner who was paying taxes, those are the only people who were gaining anything.” This makes sense; the government soon established as the United States of America did not extend basic rights to the majority of people living there, so we may presume that those revolting from England and forming that new nation were a local elite, simply fighting with the elites in England over the profits of colonial production.

I went to have a new read of the Declaration of Independence, and found it just as beautiful as ever: in the succinct and elegant formulations of the essential equality and freedom of all people and the dependence of government on the will of the people rather than vice versa, the writing hits nary a wrong note, and gives no indication that anyone is not included in “all Men.” Perhaps it was just an understanding at the time that “all Men” meant all land-owning white males? Sometimes I use the word “man” to mean humankind without respect to gender in sentences where “human” or “mankind” does not fit well.

I thought I’d do a little investigation[1] into the signatories of the Declaration of Independence hoping thereby to illuminate whether this was a milestone to be celebrated or just another squabble among the ruling elites. Along with many fascinating and diverse lives, I found a couple overwhelming patterns. They were all white males, and pretty much all land-owners. Every one of them was involved in politics to some extent, but beyond that, the most common occupations were law (over 50%), followed by plantation-owner and merchant. So while the group included fast friends and bitter rivals, slave owners and a couple abolitionists, it is fair to say that it was an assemblage of the bourgeoisie of the day. If I had to guess, I would say they had both fine ideas and the economic interests of their friends and families in their minds as they put forward the revered Declaration. So to me this is still an event to study, before I decide whether or not to celebrate it. I also wonder if there are other days in U.S. history that we should be celebrating more.

Footnotes

  1. Thank you, Wikipedia! []