Sunday, September 29, 2013

Finding common ground: Karl Marx

This semester I'm teaching an independent study course on "heterodox economics" - which is to say, the stuff that doesn't typically make it to the textbooks. I was pretty confident in picking the readings for the sections on Austrian and new institutional economics, but decided to chat with my next-door colleague, an avowed Marxist, to see what he would suggest for covering Marxism. He recommended the first volume of Das Kapital in the gleeful knowledge that he was getting ME to read it as well. He knew I was not about to assign something to my student I hadn't read myself and the recommendation is a sensible one since I'm assigning very sympathetic readings for the other topics as well. I've been meaning to read Smith, Keynes, Ricardo, Marx, et al "someday" anyway, so I took this as a chance to cross one off my list.

Primarily, I confess, I was reading so I could voice better objections to Marx than that I don't like his conclusions or rehashing other people's criticisms. I've found those objections and I'm quite pleased with the understanding I've gained in the last couple weeks. My opposition to Marxism is now founded on firmer grounds*. I also found two things that I liked.

The first was a lovely quote in praise of the labor market as
"a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham [the greatest happiness for the greatest number]. ... And precisely for that reason ... under the auspices of an all-cunning providence, they all work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal, and in the common interest."
I found myself in ready agreement with that characterisation.

The other idea was one I had never before considered, but I found it profound in my circumstances.
In essence, he points out that the worker makes a loan to his employer: he must work first before he is paid, rather than being paid first and then doing the work. My first reaction was that this makes perfect sense. Even without capitalism, if I were working for my own gratification I would have to loan myself the work before I could even think of paying myself with the fruits of my labor. First you sow, then you reap.

My second reaction was to internalize the value of that loan. Normally AUN pays me and my colleagues each month at the end of the month. We loan them a full month's labor before we are paid. Presumably the value of that loan is implicitly included in our pay, we just don't do so explicitly. So, no biggie.

Two or three times, however, there has been a small glitch in the international payment system, so that some part of my pay was delayed by a few days, never more than a week. This particular month has been unusual. Without going in to too many details, I received notice at the end of August that my salary was $0. After expressing some less-than-Christlike feelings to our finance department, I got it part way straightened out, but a solid three weeks into September I and several other colleagues had still not been paid.

It was in that situation that I read Marx's synopsis. Yes! Here I was, loaning them two months worth of work without being compensated for the value of that loan or the value of the work. I was just about ready to take some louder action when my pay finally came through. Another loss for the Revolution? I wouldn't go so far, but not everyone's pay has come yet, sadly. If people are not going to be paid, they have nothing to lose but their chains**.... ;)

This is probably the point where I reiterate that AUN typically takes very good care of us. We all still have every confidence that the pay will come through for everyone and that this will be a one-time difficulty.

(If you would like some more entertaining stories of exploiting the salaried worker, I can highly recommend the webcomic Retail.)

* - Since the reasons are bit wonkish I didn't want to put them in the main body and I'm rambling enough already. His main arguments are founded on a couple really big assumptions, one of which he supports by what I term "proof by lack of imagination": 'I can't think of anything else it could be, so this is obviously the right answer.' The other problem is that his idea of what makes a price ("exchange-value") is exactly the inverse of productivity and nothing else. While that's one part of what makes a price, it misses a great deal. He not only ignores demand, but sets up an idea of supply that misses very important factors. There are other problems in the system, but those are the foundation for everything else he sets up. Without them in place, as far as I'm concerned, the entire tapestry of ideas unravels.

** - And the price of having a several month employment gap on their resumes, I suppose.