The value (price and profit) of everything

Mariana Mazzucato’s new book, The value of everything, seems to have caught the imagination of the liberal wing of mainstream economics.  It has even won the accolade of a review in the UK’s Financial Times by top mainstream Keynesian economic journalist, Martin Wolf and was launched at an event at the London School of Economics.

Mazzucato previously wrote an important book, The Entrepreneurial State, that ‘debunked’ the myth that only the capitalist sector contributes to innovation while the state sector is a burden and cost to growth.  On the contrary, Mazzucato showed that “From the internet to nanotech, most of the fundamental advances – in both basic research but also downstream commercialisation – were funded by government, with businesses moving into the game only once the returns were in clear sight. All the radical technologies behind the iPhone were government-funded: the internet, GPS, touchscreen display, and even the voice-activated Siri personal assistant.”

In that book, she continued: “Apple initially received $500,000 from the Small Business Investment Corporation, a public financing arm of the government. Likewise, Compaq and Intel received early-stage grants, not from venture capital, but via public capital through the Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR). As venture capital has become increasingly short-termist, SBIR loans and grants have had to increase their role in early-stage seed financing the US Department of Health and the Department of Energy. Indeed, it turns out that 75 per cent of the most innovative drugs owe their funding not to pharmaceutical giants or to venture capital but to that of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH has, over the past decade, invested $600 billion in the biotech-pharma knowledge base; $32 billion in 2012 alone.”  Mazzucato showed that taxpayer enabled these tech companies to become ‘uber’ rich.

Since then, Mazzucato’s powerful arguments in favour of government investment and the role of the state have led to her becoming an adviser to the UK’s Corbyn Labour leadership and also joint winner of the Leontief prize for advancing the frontiers of economic thought, with inequality expert Branco Milanovic, formerly chief economist at the World Bank.

Now in her new book, she takes on a bigger task: trying to define who (what) creates value in our economies, a subject that has been debated by the greatest economists of capitalism from Adam Smith onwards.  “Who really creates wealth in our world? And how do we decide the value of what they do?”

Her main line in this new book is that 1) government is not recognised in national accounts as adding to value through its contribution to investment and innovation; 2) finance has sneaked into accounts as productive and value-creating when in reality it ‘extracts’ value from productive sectors and breeds speculation and short-termism etc.; and 3) there has been the growth of a monopoly sector in modern capitalism that is ‘rent-seeking’ rather than ‘value-creating’.

Mazzucato argues that “until the 1960s, finance was not widely considered a ‘productive’ part of the economy. It was viewed as important for transferring existing wealth, not creating new wealth. Indeed, economists were so convinced about the purely facilitating role of finance that they did not even include most of the services that banks performed, such as taking in deposits and giving out loans, in their calculations of how many goods and services are produced by the economy. Finance sneaked into their measurements of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) only as an ‘intermediate input’ – a service contributing to the functioning of other industries that were the real value creators.  In around 1970, however, things started to change. The national accounts – which provide a statistical picture of the size, composition and direction of an economy – began to include the financial sector in their calculations of GDP, the total value of the goods and services produced by the economy in question.

So that today “the issue is not just the size of the financial sector, and how it has outpaced the growth of the non-financial economy (e.g. industry), but its effect on the behaviour of the rest of the economy, large parts of which have been ‘financialized’. Financial operations and the mentality they breed pervade industry, as can be seen when managers choose to spend a greater proportion of profits on share buy-backs – which in turn boost stock prices, stock options and the pay of top executives – than on investing in the long-term future of the business.”

Investment is now based on short-term returns which results in less reinvestment of profits and rising burdens of debt which, in a vicious cycle, makes industry even more driven by short-term considerations. “In modern capitalism, ‘value-extraction’ is rewarded more highly than value-creation: the productive process that drives a healthy economy and society. From companies driven solely to maximize shareholder value to astronomically high prices of medicines justified through big pharma’s ‘value pricing’, we misidentify taking with making, and have lost sight of what value really means”.

Now there are many powerful truths in Mazzucato’s theses, and they are very much the kernel of modern post-Keynesian and heterodox economics.  But as such, there are also serious weaknesses with her view of value.  To argue that government ‘creates’ value is to misunderstand the law of value under capitalism.  Under capitalism, production of commodities (things and services) are for sale to obtain profit.  Commodities must have use value (be useful to someone) but they must also have exchange value (make a sale for profit).  From that capitalist perspective, government does not create value – indeed, it can be seen as a (necessary) cost that reduces the profitability of capitalist production and accumulation.  GDP is biased as a measure of value created in an economy for that good reason. It measures much more closely exchange value not the production of all use values, which would include government investment and housework (perhaps even happiness, welfare and trust).

Sure, government creates use value (although it is often use values found in weaponry, nuclear arms, chemicals etc and security forces to protect the interests of capital). But it is not productive of value and surplus value for capital.  For capital, there is not ‘value in everything’.  For capital, it is (exchange) value, not use value that matters in the last analysis.

Mazzucato is right that the finance sector does not create value. Marxist economics says it only circulates value created by labour power in productive sectors (those sectors that increase the productivity of labour power and thus the accumulation of more capital).  Banks and the credit system contribute to reduce the costs of transferring money (taking deposits and making loans) so that businesses can borrow efficiently and keep capital circulating.

Finance and credit is necessary for capital to accumulate, but does not add value itself.  But even this contribution to the circulation of capital has increasingly taken a back seat to the risk-taking role of investing in ‘fictitious capital’ (bonds and stocks trading). In her book, Mazzucato quotes the work of Andy Haldane, now chief economist at the Bank of England.  He estimated what extra value in GDP terms the financial sector actually adds to the wider economy.

He found that in the US, the value-added of financial intermediaries was about $1.2 trillion in 2010 – equivalent to 8% of total GDP. In the UK, the value-added of finance was around 10% of GDP in 2009.  In the US, the share of finance in GDP has increased almost fourfold since the Second World War. But Haldane reckons these contributions really express high risk-taking in lending and investment by banks that eventually come a cropper when a financial or property bubble bursts, as they do periodically.  Echoing Marx’s value theory, Haldane concludes: “The act of investing capital in a risky asset is a fundamental feature of capital markets. For example, a retail investor that purchases bonds issued by a company is bearing risk, but not contributing so much as a cent to measured economic activity. Similarly, a household that decides to use all of its liquid deposits to purchase a house, instead of borrowing some money from the bank and keeping some of its deposits with the bank, is bearing liquidity risk. Neither of these acts could be said to boost overall economic activity or productivity in the economy. They re-allocate risk in the system but do not fundamentally change its size or shape.”  Indeed, an IMF paper has shown that it is not just that banks trigger regular financial collapses, the finance sector has a generally negative (parasitic?) effect on the productive sectors of the capitalist economy over time.

Finance is clearly unproductive.  But it is not just finance that is unproductive.  Real estate, commercial advertising and media and many other sectors are not ‘productive’ because the labour employed does not create new value but instead just circulates and redistributes value and surplus value created.  And it is the profitability of the productive sectors that is key to a capitalist economy, not the overall amount of use values produced.

Moreover, was there nothing wrong with capitalism before finance (and ‘financialisation’) emerged after the 1970s?  Were there no crises of overproduction and investment, no monopolies and rent-seeking before the 1970s?  Was there a wonderful productive, competitive, equal capitalist mode of production existing in the 1890s, 1930s or even in the 1960s? And why did finance suddenly emerge in the 1970s, leading to the GDP measure being altered to account for it?

Mazzucato offers no explanation of why capitalism became increasingly ‘unproductive’ and ‘rent-seeking’.  But Marx’s value theory does.  From the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, there was a sharp fall in the profitability of the productive sectors of all the major capitalist economies.  Capitalism entered the so-called neoliberal period of the destruction of the welfare state, restriction of trade unions, privatisation, globalisation – and financialisation.  Financialisation (looking to make profit from the purchase and sale of financial assets using new forms of financial derivatives) became a major counteracting factor to this fall in profitability.  For capital, it was not a matter of ‘choice’ but necessity to reduce the cost of government and raise profitability, partly through financial speculation and monopoly rent-seeking.

In a Bloomberg TV interview on her new book, Mazzucato was asked by the presenter how she could persuade chief executives of large multinationals to invest productively and innovate rather than buy back their shares to boost their share prices and pay higher dividends to shareholders (ie financial speculation).  Mazzucato replied that it was a matter of choice: some companies were investing more productively and others were not.  So apparently, we have to make these companies see the error of their ways.

Mazzucato argues that government should be “tilting the field in the favour of innovators and true value creators.”  But is that really possible where capital (and monopolies) dominate?  Mainstream economics remains highly unpersuaded that government can add value for capitalism.  In his review of the book, Martin Wolf in the FT commented that: “What I would have liked to see far more of, however, is a probing investigation of when and how governments add value. …How can one ensure that governments do add value rather than merely extract and waste it? In her enthusiasm for the potential role of the state, the author significantly underplays the significant dangers of governmental incompetence and corruption.”

In the launch of her book at the London School of Economics, Mazzucato presented the example of Brazil, where during the global financial crisis under the Lula government, the state banks were directed to invest in projects that would help boost employment and technology even if they were not profitable (at least not in the medium term).  But what happened?  Big business and finance (domestic and international) bitterly attacked this policy and its implementation through the Brazilian state development bank as reducing the profits of the finance sector.  When Lula was gone, the policy was reversed.

Mariana Mazzucato does not call for the replacement of capitalism or even the rent-seeking monopolies but “how we might reform it” in order to replace the current parasitic system with a type of capitalism that is more sustainable, more symbiotic – that works for us all.”  In her TV interview she talked of a “partnership between government, multi-nationals and a ‘third sector’ (presumably social non-profit coops etc).” She made no mention of bringing the ‘parasitic’ finance sector into public ownership, let alone the ‘short-termist’, ‘rent-seeking’ monopolies.  Instead, she seeks a ‘partnership’ of government, finance and monopolies.

It seems to me a utopian illusion to imagine that monopolies can be persuaded to stop being ‘short termist’ and invest for higher productivity and innovation for the long term, if profitability in such productive pursuits seems to them too low compared to finance or real estate (if profitability was higher in productive investment, they would do it anyway).  Surely, a left government must instead look to replace big capital with democratically-run state enterprises in the ‘commanding heights’ of an economy.  This would lay the proper foundation for innovation and enterprise and thus put use-value before value, price and profit.

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14 Responses to “The value (price and profit) of everything”

  1. Antonio Says:

    Correct the spelling of her name. It’s Mariana Mazzucato.

  2. Jo Morton Says:

    “it is the profitability of the productive sectors that is key to a capitalist economy, not the overall amount of use values produced.”
    Too true
    The increased amount of steel produced globally has thrown the capitalist economy into disarray as more steel plants become unprofitable and close down, and more steel workers join the reserve army of the unemployed

  3. Virgens VK Says:

    I don’t understand the difficulty these economists have with the concept of value.

    Marx was very didactic when explaining value: it is the socially necessary labour time required to produce something which satisfies any human necessity.

    So, when Mazzucato says we need “tilting the field in the favour of innovators and true value creators” she’s automatically is advocating for socialism, because the working class is the only creator of value.

    Now, when she states that “to replace the current parasitic system with a type of capitalism that is more sustainable, more symbiotic – that works for us all.”, it’s Mazzucato, representative of the Labour Party, who’s speaking.

  4. Mike Ballard Says:

    Thanks for the critical observations. I’m not convinced that government funded production doesn’t lead to the creation of exchange-values. Lots of government contracts lead to the employment of labour to produce airplanes and weaponry which is sold in the marketplace of commodities and makes profits.

    Use-value is in the eye of the beholder and the beholder could be a Saudi prince or another one of our son’s a bitches.

    “The linen, which in his eyes is a mere commodity, a depository of value, he alienates in exchange for gold, which is the linen’s value-form, and this form he again parts with for another commodity, the Bible, which is destined to enter his house as an object of utility and of edification to its inmates. The exchange becomes an …”

    full: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch03.htm

  5. jschulman Says:

    “Surely, a left government must instead look to replace big capital with democratically-run state enterprises in the ‘commanding heights’ of an economy. This would lay the proper foundation for innovation and enterprise and thus put use-value before value, price and profit.”

    How can any left government — no matter how sincere — actually do this under “globalized” capitalism? In Europe, wouldn’t a nearly continent-wide revolution be a prerequisite for this?

  6. Charles Says:

    “For capital, it was not a matter of ‘choice’ but necessity to raise profitability, partly through financial speculation.” An individual capital may grab surplus value by financial gaming. The financial sector became a huge thing, taking as much as 40 percent of all profits. Explanation why that happened needs more than a statistical comparison of its growth and the trend of the rate of prfoit.

  7. Nadim Mahjoub Says:

    What your take on this, Michael. UK economy: “creative destruction”?
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-43908423

  8. Edmund Gerard O'Sullivan Says:

    Michael’s focus on value — what it is and how it’s created – is refreshing and vital.
    The idea that anything other than people doing constructive things can create value is the central fallacy of all conventional economic theory.
    It’s intuitively obvious, logical and, thanks to work by Michael and others, empirically supported.
    A lot of people are doing a lot of work trying to establish a new paradigm for economics, but that’s impossible until this truth is recognised and acted upon.

  9. Daniel de França Says:

    Hasn’t Noam Chomsky been caming up with similar arguments for decades? What’s the difference here?

  10. Mazzucato again | Citizens’ Press | Left wing News Says:

    […] The Value, Price and Profit of Everything | Roberts […]

  11. Gabriel Mendez Hincapie Says:

    Dear Michael Roberts, I just re-read the review I sent you and there is a key point: she seems to show in that book that the only ones who create value (making) in the economy are the workers and the state; unlike the capitalists who simply capture or take it (taking) it. Steal it from him!

    But (1) that thesis is pure Marx (and without naming him! and once the redundancy is corrected or clarified when he says “the State” he means the “workers of the entrepreneurial State”)

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