Sunday, October 23, 2011

Capital Architecture

The New Scientist has an interesting article that uses mathematical modeling of transnational corporation ownership data to map the concentration of economic wealth.

Neat, right?

The article mentions what's useful (mapping the architecture of the economy, checking for stability, calculating exposure) and what's not (determining which individuals actually control the capital).

Protestors that allegedly claim that there is a vast global conspiracy are used as an argumentative foil. The article chortles that such a conspiracy is highly unlikely. I think that most of the protestors and the 99% would completely agree. We have to remember that the 99% is a highly diverse group, with a wide variety of different beliefs, some of which are more well-founded than others. We ought to be very careful when representing the entire group in a certain light based on the beliefs of very few. The way that the paragraph was written, it's ambiguous. One way of reading the sentence is that the protestors are a unified group with some coherent set of claims, one of which is belief in a global conspiracy. By highlighting the conspiracy claim, it suggests that the belief is somehow indicative of the group as a whole, or at least widespread enough to merit mention. Otherwise, the sentence might have been written, "one thing won't chime with conspiracy theorists' claims".

There is one major flaw in reasoning in the article, made by Dan Braha of NECSI: "The Occupy Wall Street claim that 1 per cent of people have most of the wealth reflects a logical phase of the self-organising economy."

Quite simply, this statement is false.

The study models highly interconnected transnational corporate ownership, not ownership of personal wealth.

It may be that in a self-organising economy, a small percentage of corporations end up controlling most of the capital. If true, then this is a highly useful fact to know as we consider the merits of various systems of economic organization and regulation.

However, that does not entail that we permit vast concentrations of individual wealth. Resource inequality between persons undermines fundamental commitments to moral, political, and social equality. If we raised the top marginal tax rate, we could shift the wealth distribution into something far more efficient, equitable, stable and sustainable. Therefore, it is false that a self-organising economy logically entails concentration of wealth into one percent of the population.

It is also not the case that all of the 99% object to capitalism per se, or even that all of the protestors do. Capitalism can be defined in many different ways, but what I take to be distinctive is private ownership of the means of production. This contrasts with other ownership systems such as public or worker-owned firms.

Capitalism often operates in market economies. A market economy is one in which the price and quantity of goods and services produced are determined by some sort of market mechanism such as the free price system (signaling of supply and demand). Need a concrete, simple example? Ebay. The seller puts an item up for auction, the buyers bid. If the item is scarce, the price goes up. If it's worthless, the item fails to sell. Contrast this system with a command/planned economy: one where price or quantity of goods and services are set by non-market forces such as a government. The former USSR had a centrally-planned economy.

Naturally, the question of regulation arises at this point. It is important to note that even comparatively free market economies are still regulated. The question is always how much they ought to be regulated. The market is an intangible entity defined and created by humans for the purpose of coordinating resource distribution. It could take any form, and we shouldn't limit our imaginations to its present configuration.

Proponents of laissez-faire capitalism rarely agree that truly every transaction between individuals should be free of government intervention. This view is at bottom, completely anarchical and utterly absurd: we think that there should be rule of law, for instance. But of course, that requires enforcement, which means a full legal system with courts and police and such. Those who promote laissez-faire usually have some minimal conception of regulation. So then the question is not whether to have regulation, but rather how much.

After all, we do not presently permit individuals or their organs to be sold within the United States. We outlaw slavery. We tightly regulate prostitution and drugs, where they are permitted. Some things are, and ought to be beyond the scope of the market.

We don't think that the market ought to determine the worth of a human life, nor determine who deserves which set of political liberties. The ideal in the United States is a presumption of its citizens as free and equal persons.

Even those who trumpet 'free' markets usually imagine for the sake of argument that the transacting parties are free and equal with access to the same information. If they don't accept these as minimal conditions, it's hard to see how their view could possibly be justified. On what basis could we judge such a system as preferable to one that meets them?

One can accept certain regulations but reject others: for instance, that persons should be free and equal but that corn subsidies undermine what is valuable about specialization and trade.

Finally, as a society we determine how much individuals are allowed to profit off of the market. As our system is highly complex and interconnected, we understand that at bottom, this is a cooperative enterprise. Even so-called titans of industry need teachers to teach the next generation, medical professionals to tend to the sick, air traffic controllers to direct air traffic, and so on. It's not unreasonable to require that the most fortunate individuals pay back into the system that birthed and supported their venture. No one can possibly achieve greatness alone.

What I object to, as a 99%er, is the gross concentration of personal wealth, the complete corruption of political power with money, and a banking system that incentivizes short-term thinking and speculative asset bubbles.

I want to see a market economy.
I want to see a rise in the top marginal tax rate.
I want to see full public financing of elections and a decoupling of political and economic power.
I want a financial transactions tax and greater corporate taxes that adequately capture negative social externalities (such as the costs of pollution and environmental damage).

Cross-posted here.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This is a lovely piece for thoughtful capitalists. All markets of a certain size or importance are selectively regulated. For example, if we didn't regulate the wheat pit in Chicago, we'd have a famine due to price instability.

    The question of our markets is not as a matter of whether we regulate, but rather, the question is how we regulate the transactions in a way that reflects and respects all of the people involved in making a flourishing capitalist system possible. As it stands, the market is unduly regulated to the benefit of short-term speculators, and these speculators have, in turn, protected their partisan interests by insinuating themselves into the legislative(lobbying congressmen), executive(by setting the tone of the nation's Treasury and Fed) and judicial(Citizens United vs. FEC) branches of government.

    I'm a capitalist who believes in the Occupy movements. I'm a capitalist who wants his politicians to be reelected because they concern themselves with improving our education and criminal justice systems, but as it stands, I have to watch our elections be determined by how much the officials please the banking lobby.