Thursday, December 15, 2011

Productive and Unproductive Labor

I'm definitely guilty of overusing the above graph but what it illustrates so well is the level of greed that motivated the leaders of the world's investment banks. Their bonuses were so large that they eventually exceeded the net income of their companies bankrupting the companies and allowing them to escape with billions as they helped bring down the world economy.

This is an example of a problem that is ill-described in traditional economics - the problem of unproductive versus productive labor. In the case of the financial crisis, it appears that a larger and larger proportion of our nation's output was siphoned off to a growing parasitical class which used their very rich human capital to create new financial instruments and marketing techniques which in fact created no wealth. In fact, they appeared to have destroyed a lot of human, physical and financial capital in a process that added nothing to our society.

The concept of productive versus unproductive labor has a history in Marxist economics. In Marx's complex and unfinished work, Theories of Surplus Value, in Chapter 4, Marx lays out a description of what he believed added value to the economy and what appeared to subtract value from society.

Marx made a couple of big mistakes here. One was that capitalists (or today's entrepreneurs or managers) didn't add value, only labor did. He assumed that the creativity, acumen and management ability of a capitalists was no different than any other kind of labor. There is considerable evidence that the risk-taking and management expertise of capitalists is perhaps a different factor of production than other forms of labor.

However, his analysis of finance capital appears particularly germane today. Thomas Philippon in an article last month "Has the U.S. Finance Industry Become Less Efficient?, argues that, "Surprisingly, the finance industry has become less efficient: the unit cost of intermediation is higher today than it was a century ago. Improvements in information technology seem to have been cancelled out by increases in trading activities whose social value is difficult to assess."

The sad part of Phillippon's analysis is that wasted capital in finance does not seem to have diminished as the great recession has dragged on. The question appears to be, Have we learned anything?