Proletarier aller Länder vereinigt Euch!
(Workers of the world unite!)
– Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto (1848)
For 170 years, this cry has echoed through every May Day. On streets all around the world, police and many citizens have watched warily as many of their neighbors marched under red banners. Others have hidden, wishing the hint of revolution and danger would simply pass. In most nations, it’s a day off to celebrate the simple fact that labor creates all wealth. In the United States, almost alone, it’s not even a holiday.
What is the proper celebration for all workers on this International Day of Labor? Perhaps it is best to recognize that the best application of the same cause which Marx championed, the workers, may have created Communism as an ideology but in practical terms stands to save Capitalism from itself.
A corporation, by strict legal definition, is any group of people acting as if one for whatever their stated purpose. This definition is broad enough to include non-profits or NGOs. In practical terms, however, it refers to a an organization which makes something and hires people to do it.
But what is the purpose of them? Recently, it’s become very popular to assume that the main purpose of a corporation is to maximize shareholder value. That is, to grow and reward those who put their money down to make it all happen in the first place.
There are many reasons to see this need for constant growth as dangerous. Most generally, it’s not sustainable outside of the rate of population increase and productivity gains, at least once the entire planet reaches a similar level of development. But more important, the view of what a corporations is, or at least why it exists, is extremely damaging to its own stated purpose. And it’s easily shown to not actually be true in practice.
Economics is all about money, right? It’s all about theories on how to distribute it, use it, make it, or protect it, yes? This is a common perception, and the focus on money dominates the area of political and personal understanding of all things related to important concepts like markets and wealth.
Yet there is substantial evidence that this is simply inadequate at best, wrong at worst. The purpose of money, according to a rigid definition, is to be a medium of exchange and a store of value. But there is quite a lot of evidence that as a store of value, a representation of accumulated wealth, it often fails horribly.
Money only works in a dynamic sense. There are several ways to read that statement, and they are all valid points.
One of the virtues in People’s Economics, which is still evolving, is “equity.” This is a complicated word that has taken on several meanings, but the most important ones are a sense of fairness and a kind of “ownership” stake.
Talking about this as “social equity,” or a belief that all social and political systems need to be fair and that everyone needs to feel they have a stake in greater social success, is not very controversial. There is some politics which revolves around pure individualism and denies or diminishes any need for social equity, for sure. But this is not what the US or any democratic republic was really founded on. It is a denial of an integrated and cooperative world, and I am simply going to reject it out of hand.
But what does any of this mean in practical terms? A bit of an experiment is starting to take hold that may answer this question.
The politics of this moment have little space for something as esoteric as market forces. In much of the developed world, popular media and politicians alike seem to have run back to the safety of a warmed-over 19th century discussion. Is the way forward based on industrial nationalism or international socialism? The language has been updated, but the basic platforms have not.
It seems particularly strange given that half of our waking hours are at work, and for most people the world of work has nothing to do with either view. It is changing, yes, and may not seem to have a coherent vision of just what is happening in any way that affects politics. That disconnect is certainly the first problem.
But there are lessons to learn from the one force which does indeed shape the world of work and directly affects the daily routine of hundreds of millions of people in the developed world. These are the forces of the global market, and they are not going away.
So what’s wrong with the world?
If you’re a longtime reader of Barataria, you know that I have more than a few quirks. One is that in times of trouble, I always go back to the basics, the fundamental. This is part of my instinct as an engineer to hunt out the errant assumptions or whatever caused the problem.
Before I go much further in the topic I am considering, introduced in the last post, I’d like to lead you down my trail of logic – or lack thereof. Feel free to comment on any point of this which you think is weak or just plain wrong.
The US trade deficit in goods jumped a solid $80 billion per year in 2018 to $878 billion, a net increase of 10% over 2017. This rather abstract figure is naturally spun to reflect either a rebuke of Trump and his policies or as a sign that the economy is particularly strong, depending on your perspective. From the point of view of China, it’s a sign that they might well be “winning” a trade war.
Is that what any of it means? The long answer is no, of course, but it begs the question as to what any of it actually does mean. It’s important to put the trade deficit into context and reach a deeper understanding of the flow of money around the world. The resulting analysis does show that there is a problem in the world, a fundamental imbalance, but does not tell us how much we should be worried about it.