Friday, November 21, 2014

Yves Smith — Masaccio: Piketty Shreds Marginal Productivity as Neoclassical Justification for Supersized Pay

Yves here. One of the main agendas of neoclassical economics is to give Panglossian defenses of the current order a veneer of intellectual legitimacy. If our system is the result of individuals and businesses behaving in logical ways, at least in the minds of economists, surely the outcome is inevitable, and therefore virtuous, or else those operators would do things differently. The Big Lie in all of this is that neoclassical economics takes power completely out of the equation. While it does assume selfishness, in that everyone is out or himself to maximize his utility, it also assumes atomized actors who lack the power to influence markets. As we wrote in ECONNED: 
To put it another way: the neoclassical paradigm is that of pure competition, where providers are mere price takers and cannot influence market dynamics. But that is a profoundly unattractive business proposition.Even if one were to wave a wand and reconfigure the modern economy along those lines, it would in short order coalesce into larger units as individuals did deals (either via alliances or merging operations) to gain the advantages of greater size, and sought to distinguish their offerings to give them pricing power. And differentiation doesn’t necessarily mean having unique products, but can come through the service related to the products. For instance, convenience stores charge more for staples like milk by virtue of location (on highways where there are no alternatives nearby) or being open at 3:00 a.m.
Yet larger enterprises, or indeed anywhere group ties matter, are weirdly disturbing to neoclassical loyalists. One of the reasons they cling so fiercely to ideas like individuals as the locus of activity, along with rationality and welfare-maximizing results (despite the considerable distortions that result) is that they believe any other stance would support a restriction of personal rights. (An aside: this view is counterfactual. Societies where social bonds have broken down and many individuals are isolated are in fact much more subject to totalitarianism and manipulation by propaganda.)
One widely repeated bit of propaganda in the US is that how much people earn reflects their worth in an economic sense. Given how important business is in American society, maintaining this belief is critical to maintaining legitimacy; otherwise, more and more people would see corporate executives not as captain of enterprise but individuals by luck or connivance, got in a position where they could exploit a system that gives them control over assets and cash flows with perilous little in the way of controls over them (there is a vast literature on principal/agent issues in large corporations).
Here, Ed Walker explains how Piketty took a wrecking ball to the ideas that compensation at the top end of the pay spectrum has anything to do with the type of performance economists care about: marginal productivity. It is telling that this part of Piketty’s argument hasn’t gotten the attention it warrants.
Naked Capitalism
Masaccio: Piketty Shreds Marginal Productivity as Neoclassical Justification for Supersized Pay
Yves Smith 

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