The return of robber-barons?

I receive the NBER digest every month and the papers that the Digest features are almost always very interesting. In the October 2018 Digest, I came across this paper:

Are EU Markets More Competitive than Those in the U.S.? 

Since 2000, gross profit rates in the United States have risen and industry concentration has soared, but these trends are not found in the European Union.
Until the late 1990s, most U.S. markets were viewed as highly competitive relative to their international counterparts. Many European countries implemented U.S.-style free market regulatory models during this time period. 

In How EU Markets Became More Competitive Than U.S. Markets: A Study of Institutional Drift (NBER Working Paper No. 24700), Germán Gutiérrez and Thomas Philippon argue that over the last two decades, U.S. markets have gradually become less competitive, and that, because this trend was not echoed in Europe, European markets today are actually more competitive than those in the United States. In many cases, the EU markets exhibit lower levels of industry concentration and excess profitability, as well as fewer regulatory barriers to entry.

The researchers find that starting around 2000, gross profit rates in the United States began to increase while the labor share declined. These developments are much more muted in the EU. A similar trend is observed in measures of industry concentration.

The researchers explore whether industry composition drove the divergence in concentration. They consider whether the emergence of high-tech industries drove the broad increase in concentration observed in the United States. They discount that explanation, noting that “the rise in U.S. concentration since 2000 is pervasive across most sectors, just as the stability/decline in EU concentration is.” Industries that experienced significant increases in concentration in the United States, such as telecom and airlines, did not experience parallel changes in the EU.

In the airline industry, the researchers find, the “rise in U.S. concentration and profits closely aligns with a controversial merger wave that includes Delta-Northwest (2008), United-Continental (2010), Southwest-AirTran (2011) and American-US Airways (2014).”

They suggest that the divergence in market competitiveness between the U.S. and Europe is related to the powers granted to EU regulatory institutions at their inception. They note that both the European Central Bank and the Directorate-General for Competition were given more political independence than parallel institutions in the United States and thus have been able to pursue more aggressive antitrust enforcement in recent years. In the U.S. between 1996 and 2008, they write, the Federal Trade Commission “…essentially stopped enforcing mergers when the number of remaining competitors is 5 or more.” 

In all areas of antitrust the researchers find decreasing enforcement in the United States and increasing enforcement in the EU. The Directorate-General for Competition is more likely to pursue “abuse of dominance” cases than is the U.S. authority, and financial penalties in cartel cases tripled as a share of EU GDP between 2000 and 2016.

The decline in U.S. market competitiveness has had meaningful consequences for U.S. consumers, the researchers point out. Broadband internet prices in the U.S., for example, are significantly higher than in the EU, where the telecom industry is less concentrated. 

They buttress their case for the comparative lack of political independence of U.S. regulatory bodies by noting the higher levels of both lobbying and campaign contributions in the U.S. than in the EU. Political campaign contributions are 50 times higher in the U.S. than in the EU.

Source:The NBER Digest, October 2018

It is often assumed that a capitalist economy is a competitive economy. But, it need not be. Is Capitalism synonymous with competition? In theory, it is. In practice, it is not. The guy with the most market capitalisation wins? Is that capitalism?

Sarah O’ Connor’s piece in FT on how big companies are pushing governments around confirms why market concentration rises. Governments are doing the bidding of companies and not that of real markets. Pro-business is not pro-market. Pro-business is anti-competition and ani-consumer. Even anti-society.

‘The Economist’ now suggests or describes how labour unions are regrouping using technology to re-establish themselves or how technology is allowing workers to regroup themselves. Technological developments might have led to the erosion in their power base. Funny that ‘The Economist’ does not include globalisation and the offshoring of jobs as one of the things that led to the erosion of the powers of labour unions. In any case, it is good for capitalism too that labour unions are coming back.

May be, this is what is needed for the rising tide of market concentration in America to be reversed.

On ‘Bullshit’ jobs

Why are bullshit jobs created? The author of the book with the above title – David Graeber – offers this explanation:

The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them. [Link]

Somewhere here, he has a point:

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited….

….This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people.

He had written the above article in 2016 – little under two years ago. This is the cover of his new book.

His recent interviews are here and here. I get the impression that he has not figured out why bullshit jobs are created, even granting his pro-worker, ‘class revolution’ framework.

Clearly, he is focused on the possibilities of a working class revolution against capitalism of the day exept that he has not yet gone to the root cause.

This article in ‘The Economist’ in 2013 does better. The article talks about complexity of tasks being one of the factors for them to be broken up into ‘bullshit’ tasks. That is one step closer. But, how does complexity arise, in the first place? Is it only technology or is it something else? Rapacity has to be a factor.

The article goes on to predict a happy ending but the author is silent on how we would get there:

The issue is that too little of the recent gains from technological advance and economic growth have gone toward giving people the time and resources to enjoy their lives outside work. Early in the industrial era real wages soared and hours worked declined. In the past generation, by contrast, real wages have grown slowly and workweeks haven’t grown shorter.

The development of large-scale technological unemployment or underemployment, however, would force rich societies to revisit a system that primarily allocates purchasing power via earned wages. And that, in turn, could allow households to get by or even thrive while working many fewer hours than is now typically the case—albeit through a pretty hefty level of income redistribution.

This is how I see it:

Capitalist societies seem to want to pay only as little as possible to those who are not directly contributing to its bottomline. They are employed by the public sector who are paid out of the taxes that the well-heeled pay. Hence, the lower their pay, the better. Their tax dollars travel the most, in  that case.

If they are not in the public sector, they are then employed by contractors who pay even worse.

But, those who are employed by the capitalists (solely) for the purpose of catering to and furthering their greed are paid better. David Graber gives some examples of such professions:  private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants.

It is mostly about greed and how modern capitalism is not satisfied. It is about ‘more is preferable to less’ and non-satiation being the building blocks of modern capitalism. That, to me, is the root cause of ‘bullshit’ jobs and that is what I had mentioned in my column last week.