07 December 2016

A Man of Subsistence

Since the beginning of time, well Adam Smith (the real one) at least, economics has been characterized as studying the interplay among three high level inputs to production: land, labour, and capital. Until the industrial revolution, landowners held sway. Subsequently, both capitalists and their puppet economists agreed that they were the chosen people.

So, let me start with an anecdote. Here on the hill is a sorta, kinda commune. The houses came down through the wife's family, which now consists of two sisters and a brother (who lives elsewhere), two cats, two dogs (Lhasa and Jack Russell-ish), and humble self. Recently, since both dogs are getting up there in dog years, I suggested we get a third, so that when the first of the pair succumbs to whatever ails it, the survivor will still have a companion. Made sense, to me anyway. The wife demurred, saying that two would gang up on the third; not necessarily the newcomer.

I found that amusing, since she and her sister have done that to moi. She didn't notice the irony, of course. They're BAPs, so they deserve a servant.

Which brings us to The Donald and Carrier (Pence's Indiana is actually paying for it!) and Boeing and such. It has been an article of faith, codified by that Pareto guy, that labour will always, under any economic regime, be reduced to subsistence wages in deference to the needs of landowners and capitalists. Pareto, in particular, used data going back centuries to make his point. Marx, not Groucho, demurred.

On the other hand, we have this observation, of more recent vintage (yes, it's part of the preamble to one version of these endeavors):
As mass production has to be accompanied by mass consumption; mass consumption, in turn, implies a distribution of wealth -- not of existing wealth, but of wealth as it is currently produced -- to provide men with buying power equal to the amount of goods and services offered by the nation's economic machinery.
-- Marriner Eccles (mid 1930s FDR advisor)

Take Smith and Eccles, toss in a blender, and what sort of smoothie do you get? What we get is the distribution problem writ bold: as automation decreases the number of labour hours in the production of widgets, we have a demand problem. The lunatic right wing continues to demand yet more supply side support for capital, but the fact remains true; corporations and the 1% sit on trillions of $$$ of idle cash. That cash, to the extent it is used at all, is spent chasing Treasuries down to 1.5% return and M&A and share buybacks. None of those uses has any growth, at the macro level, component. It's all just moving money from the many to the few, who just sit on it as they do today. And, if the spend it all, they still chase Treasuries being the scaredy cats they truly are.

What you get, if an improving macro-economy is the goal, is a revised definition of "subsistence". In the middle ages through the end of the 19th century, subsistence meant just the other triad of economics: food, clothing, and shelter. Labour's only purpose was to reproduce in sufficient numbers to supply effort making the stuff for the elite, whether regal or commercial. Today's lunatic right still thinks in those terms, despite the obvious fact that production today is utterly different from as late as 1900. Eccles understood that. The Donald and his entourage don't. In particular, they are wilfully ignorant of the fact that the 1% have really good healthcare because the employer paid health benefits originating during WWII (and damn gummint support for R&D) are what paid for it all. If only the 1% can pay for healthcare as just another consumer discretionary spend, in a short time even they'll have 1920s variety healthcare.
It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.
-- Mark Twain

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