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The Ethic of Marginal Value

Mainstream economics is an ethical theory masquerading as a description of social reality.

Illustration by "Kotryna Zukauskaite

Illustration by Kotryna Zukauskaite / Jacobin

Recently David Graeber has gotten some attention for an essay on “the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” which is notable mostly for getting some important arguments about the nature of work into wider circulation than usual. Mainstream economists have taken notice of Graeber’s contention that much of the activity that people are compelled to perform in return for their wages is “effectively, pointless.”

But the result of mainstream engagement, as often as not, is little more than a demonstration of the narrow perspective of the conventional economist. In that vein, I’m particularly enamored of this contribution from Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution. Tabarrok seizes on an element of Graeber’s essay that echoes something I wrote about a couple of years ago: the weak relationship between the importance of the jobs people do and the reward they receive for doing them. As I put it back then, “it sometimes seems that the distribution of wages is, to a first approximation, the exact inverse of the social utility of work.” Or in Graeber’s formulation,”the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it.”

Tabarrok — along with, apparently, Brad DeLong — views this as an elementary error of reasoning, an example of “the diamond-water paradox”:

Water is cheap and its value low because the supply of water is so large that the marginal value of water is driven down close to zero. Diamonds are expensive because the limited market supply keeps the price and marginal value high. Not much of a paradox. Note that, contra Graeber, there is nothing special about labor in this regard or “our society.”

Moreover, it’s good that prices are determined on the margin. We would be very much the poorer, if all useful goods were expensive and only useless goods were cheap.

The impressive thing is just how much misdirection and willful obtuseness Tabarrok manages to pack into a few sentences. The argument crumbles at whatever level one chooses to engage it.

To begin with, the chosen example is an amusing one, since it in no way exemplifies what it purports to demonstrate. Diamonds may be scarcer than water, but that is not what dictates their price. The price of diamonds has been maintained over the decades by the powerful DeBeers cartel, which has kept up prices through a combination of marketing and buying up excess supply. I suppose Tabarrok could counter that the phrase “market supply” doesn’t imply that the availability of a commodity is a function of physical scarcity. But I hardly think he would subscribe to the notion that supply in capitalist markets is or should be primarily determined by the actions of powerful monopolists.

Leaving this aside, Tabarrok is avoiding Graeber’s point by bringing up the marginal cost and the supply of different kinds of labor-power, rather than the social value of different kinds of labor. But even on these terms, it’s a pretty dubious argument. Let’s contrast a couple of the job categories that Graeber brings up: advertising and nursing. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 620,900 people employed as “Advertising, Marketing, Promotions, Public Relations, and Sales Managers,” and 2,590,600 employed as “Nursing, Psychiatric, and Home Health Aides.” If the nurses make less money, even though there are more than four times as many jobs for them, then by Tabarrok’s account it must be because the skills involved in marketing are so rare, and those involved in nursing so plentiful. And yet by many accounts there is a serious nurse shortage, while I’ve yet to hear of a serious PR flack shortage afflicting the nation.

The more obvious explanation would be that wages are largely determined by how powerful workers are, and how powerful their industries are. In the extreme case of high finance, you have a sector that has succeeded in extracting large rents from the economy, as Felix Salmon explains, and has shared those spoils with a privileged layer of bank employees. But to understand this you would have to understand economic outcomes as the result of power relations, not immutable and impersonal market forces.

The most grievous illusion that Tabarrok propagates, however, is that “there is nothing special about labor” when it comes to the determination of prices by marginal value. This a good illustration of the argument that Seth Ackerman and Mike Beggs make in the most recent Jacobin: marginal productivity theory is an ethical theory masquerading as a description of social reality. What Tabarrok means is not that there is nothing special about labor, but that there should be nothing special about it. Just as DeBeers can increase the price of diamonds by buying up excess supply, the capitalist class ought to be able to keep the price of labor down by flooding the market with the desperate unemployed. The socialist tradition, however — whether in its Marxist or Polanyian form — holds that there is and should be something special about labor, because labor is people, and the freedom and welfare of the people is the proper subject of political economy.

Of course, the apologists for capitalism insist that they are the ones looking out for the welfare of the people, hence Tabarrok’s clucking reminder that “we would be very much the poorer, if all useful goods were expensive and only useless goods were cheap.” But even on its own terms, such defenses only work on a very abstract collective level, where total wealth matters but its distribution does not. After all, who’s “we” here? As Steve Waldman observes, this means that “it is socialists who are the individualists, attending to the sum of individual welfares, while unsympathetic capitalists rely upon collectivism to justify their good fortune and the policy apparatus that magnifies and sustains it.” Or as Oscar Wilde put it, “Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism.”

Tabarrok seems to think that Graeber is recommending that wages be brought into line with some standard of inherent social value, but this is to miss the point. The point, rather, is to do what we can to separate the right to a decent standard of living from the labor one happens to perform. And, just as important, to break free from the illusions of both libertarianism and meritocracy — that is, from the belief that the price of labor either is or should be the measure of its value.


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