Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

If it were a dog it would bite them!



Book Review: Mariana Mazzucato: The Value of Everything: Making & Taking in a Global Economy [2018]

image credit: green kozi CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/aaEYAY

Taken from Henry George, the title of this post refers to economists who make good points but don’t get to their logical conclusion. Mariana Mazzucato may be another. We may start by looking at some of the main themes of her book.

  • Value extractors are obtaining a large and increasing share of wealth produced, resulting in a smaller share for those who actually produce valuable goods and services. This problem has several interlocking causes.
  • Measures of national product (GDP) conceive value as equal to price, meaning that any profitable activity adds to national product even if it’s essentially an extraction of value rather than production of good or service of value. In recent decades, opportunities for private value extraction have multiplied.
  • One effect of this increase in private value extraction is that the extractors now have effective control of much of the government. Lobbying by value extractors changed national income concepts to include their extractions in GDP.
  • Further, the conventions of national income calculation tend to understate the value of government work. This is because the value of a private company’s production necessarily exceeds, on average, the cost of labor and capital inputs (otherwise the company would have no profit). A government’s production, by contrast, is treated as equal to the cost of the inputs, even if the value of the product is much greater.
  • Partly as a result of this undervaluation, some services previously provided by government have been “privatized,” which means, in most cases, are still funded by taxes but are performed by employees of private firms under contract.

Some examples of the problem:

  • As retirement income becomes based on earnings of assets, pools of assets grow and opportunities for value extraction multiply. This includes fees for managing investments, and various side-hustles.
  • As governmental functions are “privatized,” the quality of service drops along with the earnings of people who provide the service. But costs typically don’t decline because of contractors’ profits and lobbying expenses.
  • Patent privileges have been vastly expanded in recent decades. This provides more opportunities for value extraction, but actual useful innovation seems to be retarded by patents. Also, as patent offices have become understaffed relative to the workload, patents become easier to obtain.
  • Governments (or their banker overlords) seek to reduce the deficit/GDP ratio by reducing spending, failing to recognize that some kinds of government spending actually facilitate an increase in GDP far in excess of their cost.
  • The dominant neoclassical economic ideas assume that rent can be competed away, and that unemployment is voluntary. They further fail to recognize “the collective and cumulative processes behind innovation.”

The remedy? According to the author:

  • “We” need to “define and measure” the “collective contribution to wealth creation,” to overcome the “price=value thinking…” and recognize that most of the “…creation of value is collective.”
  • “We” should also recognize that the current structure of corporations, controlled by shareowners thru boards, with no formal role for employees, customers, and other “stakeholders,” is not the only possible or practical way to arrange things.
  • The role of governments, as well as nonprofits and cooperative organizations, in value creation needs to be recognized.
  • Tax laws need to be modified to advantage actual value creators rather than value extractors. In addition to changes in income tax laws, a small tax on financial transactions would be helpful.
  • Patent laws need to be modified to discourage abuse. To encourage particular kinds of innovation, bounties might be substituted for patents.
  • Portraying government as “investing, not spending, can eventually modify how it is regarded.” [of course this little trick has been used by U S politicians for many years.]
  • “We” need to develop a vision of what society needs, and set government priorities regarding infrastructure, services, and regulations to achieve it.

So what is the value of this book?

  • It does give some history of concepts of national income, going back to the 17th century and summarizing views of William Petty and Gregory King as well as Adam Smith, the Physiocrats, Ricardo, and (with special admiration) Marx and Keynes. It does discuss rent, mostly in an accurate way. There’s no mention of Henry George, perhaps because this part of the book is euro-centric, or perhaps for other reasons. She does mention some important Americans, including Elinor Ostrom.
  • It identifies the problem of accumulated privilege, resulting in value extraction, which impedes real progress.
  • It clearly describes some principal means by which value is extracted.
  • It taught me a few things about the way GDP is calculated, and the history of patents.
  • It clarifies that there’s nothing “natural” or “inevitable” about the way our economy is set up; many different arrangements for such components as corporations and patents could work, and some would be a lot better than what we have.
  • In a description of VW and the “dieselgate” affair, she acknowledges some of the limitations of her proposals.

As a Georgist, I see two big shortcomings with this book:

(1) Even tho nowadays the value extractors have effective control of governments and other powerful institutions, the author seems to assume that somehow these forces will be overcome once the people come to understand that government really is useful, and that the benefits it provides are far greater than is reflected in GDP. Furthermore and related, there is the assumption that the bulk of government expenditure is good, that government is for the most part honest and reliable. There is also almost no mention of the huge waste on military, punishment, and other expenditures which an honest and efficient government would need to eliminate. So, once proper understanding is achieved, the government will wisely set priorities and provide appropriate infrastructure and services. No method is proposed for accomplishing this, and the alternative of decentralization really gets no attention.

(2) While rent is mentioned, and for the most part correctly characterized, there’s no discussion of how rent can be used to properly fund services and eliminate other taxes. It’s true, of course, that some privileges are best eliminated, but for use of real estate parcels, electromagnetic spectrum, and other natural resources the wise policy in most cases is to allow private ownership but collect virtually all the rent for public use.

And then there are a few little nits to pick.

  • She does not like corporations to distribute profits to shareholders. Partly this seems to be because share buybacks are one of the several ways that corporate management contrives to reward themselves excessively, but also she displays a fundamental belief that corporations should reinvest in their business, apparently without regard for whether management believes worthwhile opportunities are available.
  • “A recent study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania…” is referenced on page 219, but without footnote or citation.
  • On page 44 she describes rent as including “what you pay a landlord to live in a flat.” This is inconsistent with the way she uses the term elsewhere in the book, since only part of what you pay to live in a flat is to cover the proportionate share of the land it occupies; much is for use of the structure (capital) and services (labor).

In conclusion, this is a pretty good book for understanding how some means of wealth extraction work and why it poses a danger to the rest of us. It encourages us to consider alternative ways for organizing our communities. But it’s weak on practical solutions.

additional note: Mariana Mazzucato has recently been interviewed regarding this book on Econtalk and Alphachat.

another additional note: Font sizes may appear a bit screwy herein because I haven’t figured out how to enlarge the teeny font that seems to be the default in WordPress lists under the new Gutenberg editor. Someday maybe I will.

“The hero turns out to be Henry George”

Ray Kroc’s first McDonalds in Des Plaines, IL, is now a historic site. Image credit: Matt Thorpe CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’ve complained before about Russ Roberts’ Econ Talk failing to note the importance of economic rent and land costs.  So I was pretty pleased to hear his guest Philip Auerswald say

I think the hero in all this, and I talk about this in The Code Economy, turns out to be Henry George. I mean, I think he really, you know, the 19th century U.S. economist–and he really anticipated these phenomena more clearly than anybody.

Pleased enough to read Auerswald’s new book. And he does get a lot of what George wrote about.

Auerswald’s main point seems to be that an economy doesn’t just have inputs and outputs, but what’s more important is the methods by which the inputs are used to produce the outputs. That’s “code,” and folks have been using it for 40,000 years.  In recent centuries, standardization and automation of various kinds have increased productivity — the amount of stuff which a given amount of inputs could produce.

And, as we see computers and machine-driven processes increasingly capable of replacing human labor, what will humans do?  He endorses Henry George’s analysis that, as productivity increases, rents will increase.  And he supports the citizens’ dividend (tho he does not use the term), to be funded by a land value tax.

But his concluding pages seem to assume that, of course everyone will have a guaranteed income from land rent, no problem there, but what will people do with their time? To George, the problem was to get a fair distribution (not redistribution, because by right the rent belongs to everybody) of wealth, which he expected would result, over time, in social progress and a more constructive community. When I look at Wikipedia, Flickr, some blogs and a bunch of other internet resources, I tend to agree with George. Auerswald assumes the wealth distribution, but doesn’t assume that people and the community will improve.  If I looked at Facebook or some other sites I might agree with him.

Auerswald also makes interesting use of the concept of comparative advantage, applying it to humans exchanging work with machines. Machines can do certain kinds of work millions of times faster than humans, so logically machines should do such work.  In other tasks the difference might be much less, so those tasks would remain with humans (tho I would guess at much lower wages than currently.) And then there are some “low-volume, high-price” tasks which might remain human monopolies.

*****If you’re not the editor of Auerswald’s book, stop reading here*****

This book is full of irritating errors.  On page 2 is a list of ingredients for chocolate chip cookies, comprising butter, sugar, water, salt, and chocolate chips — but no flour. Page 92 says “slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1807,” while Wikipedia provides various dates, depending on your definition, in the 1830s or 1840s. Page 120 places Ray Kroc’s first McDonalds in “Desplaines, California.”  Page 175 calls Zipcar a “ridesharing” platform, corrected on page 213 to “car-sharing.”   “As Henry George understood nearly a century ago” on page 232 doesn’t seem likely regarding a man who died in 1897 mentioned in a 2017 book. There are probably more, that historians or various kinds of geeks would notice.