The lucky generation and the historic limits of capital
Optimism amongst mainstream economists is clearly misplaced, argues Michael Roberts
Once again at the beginning of the year, forecasts for growth of output and incomes for the world economy and for the top 20 of nations (G20) are optimistic. For the sixth year in a row since the end of the great recession in mid-2009, forecasts by the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Bank and EU Commission are for an acceleration in growth and a ‘return to normal’. But each year since then, that has proved to be wrong. Real GDP growth, and particularly real GDP per head of population, has failed to return to the trend growth achieved before the great recession. In that sense, the world economy remains locked in a long depression similar to that of the 1930s and of the mid-1880s.
In a new paper, David Papell and Ruxandra Prodan, at the University of Houston, find that deep recessions after a financial crash can take up to nine years before growth returns to trend. But this time it is different - it is even worse.1 Output has been lost forever (Fig 1).
According to the latest projections of the US Congressional Budget Office (CBO), US real GDP will never return to its pre-great recession growth path: “The projected decrease in potential GDP is unprecedented, as almost all post-war US recessions, post-war European recessions, slumps associated with European financial crises, and even the great depression of the 1930s were characterised by an eventual return to potential GDP.” US real GDP will permanently be 7.2% below the pre-great recession growth path because trend real GDP continued to rise during the recession. The CBO calls this a “purely permanent recession”. It reckons that the US trend growth rate will slow to just 1.7% and will never be above 2% a year for the foreseeable future!
In another paper just out, three economists find that long-run US real GDP growth has been declining for some time and the main reason is a slowdown in the growth of the productivity of labour2 (Fig 2). And two more economists show that worker productivity in the major economies has been persistently weak since the onset of the global crisis: “We find that persistently weak productivity is not normally a feature of financial crises in advanced economies - this time has been different.”3
But actually it is not so different. When you look back at the history of modern capitalism, periods when economic growth has been sufficiently strong to raise living standards for the majority and achieve full employment and decent public services, even in the most advanced economies, have been few and far between.
Yes, the capitalist mode of production brought about a huge leap in the productivity of labour. As Andy Haldane, the chief economist at the Bank of England, described it,
For three millennia prior to the industrial revolution, growth per head averaged only 0.01% per year. Global living standards were essentially flat. Since 1750, it has taken around 50 years for living standards to double. Prior to 1750, it would have taken 6,000 years … Discernible rises in living standards are a very recent phenomenon. If the history of growth were a 24-hour clock, 99% would have come in the last 20 seconds. Economic growth is a recent phenomenon, but rapid growth is even more recent. The sort of growth we experienced over the past half century or so was unusual even by the standards of the last 300 years. In short, we have lived through an extraordinary period within an extraordinary period4 (Fig 3).
This is undeniably true - as an average. Indeed, the power to accelerate productivity through the capitalist mode of production - a mode of production designed to apply technology and machinery to exploit labour-power to the maximum - was first recognised by Marx and Engels.5
But the ugly side of the capitalist mode of production is that it has class-based social relations. The owners of capital stand in conflict with the owners of labour-power and the fruits of labour productivity are controlled and usurped by capital. Capitalism may have developed the productive forces to unprecedented levels, but it did not do so evenly, fairly and without violence. Inequality of wealth and income in the major capitalist economies has never been wider.6 The vast majority of the world’s population remain at or near what everybody regards as poverty levels. War, disease and environmental destruction still stalk the world on a daily basis. And capitalism has not increased living standards in a straight upward line: the mode of production is inherently subject to crises of production and slumps that destroy the lives and livings of millions in regularly occurring periods.
Back in 1930 at the depth of the great depression, the most famous mainstream economist, John Maynard Keynes, gave a short lecture to students at Cambridge University. Later in 1931, this lecture was revised and published as a short essay, ‘Economic possibilities for our grandchildren’, in his Essays in persuasion.7
When formulating the final draft of his essay, Keynes commented: “The fact is - a fact not yet recognised by the great public - that we are now in the depth of very severe international slump, a slump which will take its place in history amongst the most acute ever experienced.” But even so JMK wanted to convince his student audience, many of whom were under the influence of Marxist ideas at the time, that they should be optimistic about the future potential of the capitalist mode of production. In his view, as argued in the essay/lecture, capitalism would progress so that by 2030 the standard of living would be dramatically higher; people would be liberated from want and would work no more than 15 hours a week, devoting the rest of their time to leisure and culture.
JMK started his lecture by saying:
We are suffering just now from a bad attack of economic pessimism. It is common to hear people say that the epoch of enormous economic progress which characterised the 19th century is over; that the rapid improvement in the standard of life is now going to slow down - at any rate in Great Britain; that a decline in prosperity is more likely than an improvement in the decade which lies ahead of us. The prevailing world depression, the enormous anomaly of unemployment in a world full of wants, the disastrous mistakes we have made, blind us to what is going on under the surface, to the true interpretation of the trend of things.
For I predict that both of the two opposed errors of pessimism which now make so much noise in the world will be proved wrong in our own time - the pessimism of the revolutionaries who think that things are so bad that nothing can save us but violent change, and the pessimism of the reactionaries who consider the balance of our economic and social life so precarious that we must risk no experiments. In quite a few years - in our own lifetimes, I mean - we may be able to perform all the operations of agriculture, mining and manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been accustomed.
Thus Keynes wanted to convince his students that the terrible depression of capitalism in the 1930s would be rectified and capitalism would prove to be greatest show on earth. Well, as we head towards 2030, was JMK right? Has capitalism taken human civilisation forward economically since 1930?
JMK reckoned that GDP would quadruple in the lifetime of the Cambridge students he was talking to and would rise eight times by 2030. Well, that prediction may have been close for some advanced capitalist economies. But it was too optimistic for the world economy as a whole.
Anyway, it is not GDP that matters: it is GDP per head. So if we assume that a Cambridge student of 20 years in 1930 lived another 60 years (relatively generous for life expectancy then), did real GDP per head quadruple by 1990? Well, according to the invaluable Angus Maddison studies, in 1930 real GDP per head in JMK’s Britain was $5,441 (PPP basis). It reached $8,240 in 1960 and then $16,430 per head in 1990. So there was a tripling of per capita GDP in the UK’s real GDP. Not bad - but by no means four times higher. And if we look at the world economy as a whole (something JMK does not explicitly distinguish from the advanced economies), then world per capita GDP rose only about 2.5 times by 1990. JMK was far too optimistic.
Keynes’s second prediction was for a rise of real GDP by eight times from 1930 to 2030. “Let us, for the sake of argument, suppose that a hundred years hence we are all of us, on the average, eight times better off in the economic sense than we are today. Assuredly there need be nothing here to surprise us.” Again JMK seems to consider that the advanced economies constitute the whole world’s population. But was he right anyway? Well, world real GDP rose from $4.5 trillion in 1940 to about $50 trillion now. But per capita real GDP was $1,958 in 1940 and reached $7,614 in 2008. That is much less than four times. As for the population, there has been an explosion. In 1940, there were 2.2 billion people in the world. It looks as though it will reach 8.4 billion in 2030. Assuming a generous 3% growth in real world GDP from now until 2030 - something that many reckon will not be achieved - world GDP will be about $97 trillion then. That gives a per capita level of $11,770, compared to $1,958 in 1940, or a rise of six times.
You might argue this is quibbling. After all, a sixfold rise in per capita GDP from 1940 to 2030 is still amazing in the history of human social organisation. But capitalism will not meet the targets expected by Keynes. And can we assume that we will not experience major wars or depressions in the next 20 years that could bring the outcome even lower?
Like Marx, Keynes looked to solve the ‘economic problem’ of scarcity and toil. The difference was that Keynes reckoned it could only be done under the capitalist mode of production:
I draw the conclusion that, assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the ‘economic problem’ may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not - if we look into the future - the permanent problem of the human race.
But the capitalist mode of production, like other class societies, cannot avoid wars and it has not avoided famine and poverty for the majority of the world. Within a decade, Britain was engaged in a world war that killed millions of armed and unarmed people and destroyed the livelihoods of millions of others. And since 1945 there has not been a day where there has not been armed conflict somewhere in the world, even in this period of relative ‘world peace’ between the major powers, both during and after the so-called cold war.
Moreover, in his address, Keynes totally ignores inequalities of income and wealth. Per capita income for a country is merely an average. The majority do not reach that average (if it is a mean average). Although average living standards have continued to rise, the living standards at the bottom 20% of the income distribution have stagnated or declined for the last 30 years. Inequality of income and wealth was at a high in 1930 after the 1920s credit and stock market bubbles, back to levels not seen since Victorian times. The post-war recovery and the welfare state with its higher tax rates did reduce inequalities in the major capitalist economies for a while. But the neoliberal period of reaction from the mid-1970s onwards pushed inequalities back to new heights, especially in the US and the UK, right up to the point of the great recession. Now we are in a very similar state economically and socially, in terms of equality, as we were when Keynes made his speech.
Then there is the issue of work and leisure. Keynes argued that “for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent, problem - how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well”. He predicted superabundance and a three-hour day - the socialist dream, but under capitalism. Well, the average working week in the US in 1930 - if you had a job - was about 50 hours. It is still above 40 hours (including overtime) now for full-time, permanent employment. Indeed, in 1980, the average hours worked in a year was about 1,800 for the advanced economies. Currently, it is still about 1,800 hours - so again no change there.
The point I am making is that there are huge periods of time when capitalism does not deliver even for the majority in the advanced capitalist economies. I am part of the lucky generation. I am a member of that cohort of people born between 1946 and 1965 - the baby boomer generation. We are lucky because we came into the world in countries of advanced capitalism at a time when there was unprecedented economic growth, near ‘full employment’, relative low inequality of wealth and income, and strongish labour movements, able to extract concessions from capital on labour rights, a welfare state, universal health and education, public housing.
Capital was able to concede these gains for labour because it was experiencing high rates of profitability after the destruction of capital values during the war. It could draw on a huge reserve army of labour in Europe and Asia, along with new technology, to exploit. And global capitalism had one hegemonic power, the US, that could provide credit and investment in Europe and Asia within Pax Americana. In short, this was a golden age for capitalism. Concessions to labour were possible instead of a desperate class battle. And capital was forced to concede, because labour was organised and relatively strong.
The period 1948-73 was one of relative prosperity that was better shared among the population by a long way than now. That was a product of faster economic growth. The US enjoyed rapid labour productivity growth, averaging 2.8% annually. Income inequality fell, with the share of income going to the top 1% falling by nearly one-third, while the share of income going to the bottom 90% rose slightly. Household income growth was also fuelled by the increased participation of women in the workforce. Prime-age (25-54) female labour-force participation escalated from one third in 1948 to one half by 1973. The combination of these three factors increased the average income for the bottom 90% of households by 2.8% a year over this period.
But the golden age was unprecedented and relatively short. It was over by the late 1970s, as capitalism entered a crisis of falling profitability. It was different for what we might call, in the UK, Thatcher’s children - those born just before or after the 1980s double-dip recession and becoming working age adults in the late 1990s onwards.
The baby boomers (above 55 years) have increased their wealth dramatically since the 1980s, while Thatcher’s children (35-54) have lost out. Indeed, the great recession has created the largest wealth inequality gap between young and old on record. In American households it has quadrupled in the past 25 years. In 1984, households aged 65 and up were 10 times wealthier than their younger counterparts. Now, they are 47 times wealthier.
Disproportionate income gains are also driving the divide. Younger households have seen a 3% increase in income over their counterparts 26 years ago, while older households have had their incomes increase by 25%. Student debt has played a strong role, as more of today’s youth attend college than in 1984. Spiralling tuition costs have left today’s young adults more burdened by college debt than past generations. As a result, poverty for younger households in the US has reached a record high of 22%, nearly doubling since 1967. Older households have seen poverty rates decline over time, and are now at a record low of 11%.
There is much discussion and propaganda among mainstream economics that the real divide in society now is not between labour and capital, or between rich and poor, but between the young and the old: ie, between my son and me. The old, like me, are sucking away the incomes and future pensions of the young and increasing taxes for our aged care and health. Many of us old (middle class) baby boomers have nice homes without mortgages, while the next generation and the one after that cannot get on the mortgage ladder. A recent study found that in London there were more people forced to rent than there were owning their homes or renting from the state or from social housing.
Recently, the Financial Times argued that Britain’s young adults, who for much of the 20th century enjoyed living standards well above average, have been displaced by the rise of the comfortably-off pensioner in the most dramatic generational change in decades.8 Replacing the young in the premier league of living standards have been people in their 60s and 70s. The average 65-70-year-old used to have lower living standards than 75% of UK families. Now people in the same age group can expect to be almost in the top 40% of family incomes.
Ernst & Young Item Club has reported that much of the increase in the UK workforce over the past five years has been due to older people either staying in work or going back to work. Rising participation by older age cohorts, it says, has added even more people to the labour force than immigration. People who 10 years ago might have retired are now staying in work.
The FT says this is “gains for the old at the expense of the young”, as though there was a pot of unchanging wealth and income that must be shared. But is that the case? What has really happened is that wages have dropped as a share of GDP, inequality has risen and capitalism has failed to maintain the golden age, as profitability of capital fell (Fig 4).
In response, under the neoliberal period since the late 1970s, cuts in wages, welfare, pensions and public services were made, while job security, conditions and rights were curtailed in order to reverse the fall in profitability. It was the failure of capitalism to deliver, not the greed of old baby boomers like myself.
The reason many older people are staying at work is because their pensions are inadequate (annuity rates are at an all-time low) and they must stay in work now well beyond the expected retirement age. The number of people in defined benefit pension (ie, good final salary schemes) has been falling steadily and will decline sharply from here.
Will there ever be another ‘lucky generation’ under capitalism or is that the last we shall see? After all, there have been other short periods in the history of capitalism that could be described as a golden age: say the period from the mid-1880s to the 1900s in the UK and Europe, when the labour movement grew stronger, mass socialist parties were formed and there was the beginning of a ‘welfare state’ in Bismarckian Germany and Liberal England. Maybe, if and when the current long depression comes to an end, capitalism could have a new burst of life, based on a range of new technologies and surplus labour in the emerging economies of Asia. But it gets more difficult each time for capitalism to deliver.
Past use-by date?
Why? Well, let us consider the basic message of Marx’s analysis in Capital of the direction of modern capitalism. Yes, it has taken the level of productive forces to new heights in human history, but within it are the seeds of its own destruction. The graph on p11 (Fig 5, the simple mean average world rate of profit) comes from the work of Esteban Maito.9 It shows the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s in profit terms. But it also shows the downward direction of the rate of profit globally - signalling the eventual demise of the capitalist mode of production, based as it is on the profit motive.
The current long depression has stimulated even some mainstream economists to raise the question of whether capitalism is past its use-by date in developing human civilisation. Robert J Gordon, a professor at North-Western University, has argued that the rapid technological progress under the capitalist mode of production in the last 250 years, referred to by Haldane, is now over.10
Gordon believes there are six headwinds that will slow future innovation: an ageing population in the mature economies; rising inequality; an increasing lack of competitive advantage for the mature capitalist economies; poorer education because public investment in education is being destroyed; increasing environmental regulations; and excessive debt. He concludes that US real economic growth could fall to just an average 0.2% a year for the foreseeable future, compared to the 2%-3% of the past. Capitalism, at least in the mature economies, has had its day.
In a sequel to his 2012 paper,11 Gordon responded to mainstream criticism of his thesis:
A controversy about the future of US economic growth was ignited by my paper released in late summer 2012. The debate began with my prediction that over some indefinite period of time into the future, perhaps 25 to 40 years, the growth of real per capita disposable income of the bottom 99% of the US income distribution would average 0.2% per year, compared to 2.0% per year in the century before 2007. This prediction set off a firestorm of controversy with commentary, blogs, and op-eds around the world.
Gordon admitted that he was talking about the US and no other economies, where the ‘headwinds’ may be less, and agreed that “there is plenty of room for ‘catch-up growth’ in the emerging markets of the world”. And he was looking at potential growth, not actual GDP.
He was criticised for underestimating the new technologies that will come into play in driving up productivity growth over the next few decades. He retorted:
... there is no need to forecast that innovation in the future will “falter”, because the slowdown in the rate of productivity growth over the past 120 years already occurred more than four decades ago. This sequel paper explains why the pace of innovation declined after 1972. The future forecast assumes that innovations in the next 40 years will be developed at the same pace as the last four decades, but reasons for scepticism are provided for that prediction.
So Gordon claims that he does not need to predict poor innovation from here still to conclude that US economic growth is set to slow to a trickle over the next few decades. He predicts that the real living standards of all but the top 1% in the income distribution will barely grow at all in the decades ahead and that this experience of the vast bulk of the population has been no better than that since 1973. Over the whole of that period, median real household income has actually risen by only 0.1% per annum.
What cannot be denied is that the productivity growth in the US and other major capitalist economies has been slowing since the 1970s - neoliberalism has failed to innovate. US output per hour of work since 1972 has risen by only about 1.3% a year, apart from the brief dot.com boom in the late 1990s. And real output growth per worker has slowed from a mediocre 2.4% a year (as Gordon recorded) in the last 20 years to just 1% a year over the past three years.
Many critics of Gordon’s view argue that this slowdown is temporary and is caused by the effects of the great recession and the cyclically weak recovery since. Once capitalists start to invest more, productivity growth will recover to the previous trend. The only problem with that argument is that there is still little sign of any significant return to the previous trend in business investment growth.
In 2013, real spending on business investment in the US rose 3.8% - little more than half the rate achieved prior to the great recession. And what is especially noticeable is that spending on hi-tech innovatory equipment - the previously dynamic high-growth sector, with an average of 10%-20% annual growth - is very weak, now growing at a pace slower than overall real GDP (Fig 6).
Hi-tech spending on both equipment and software has fallen from 4.7% of US GDP in 2000 to 3.5% in 2013. This area is key to boosting productivity. What is the reason for this slowdown in investment in new technology? Well, it appears to be that the cost of new equipment and software is just too high relative to the realised and expected return on those investments - in other words, the rate of profit is not high enough.
Rise of robots
But is technology and innovation really going to fail to deliver better growth over the next few decades? The rise of robots and artificial intelligence is predicted by some to have an exponential effect in what has been called the ‘second machine age’ in Andrew McAfee’s and Erik Brynjolfsson’s influential book on the march of the robots.12
Will capitalism be saved by robots, while workers will be able to live the happy life of leisure that JMK reckoned would be achieved by capitalism round about now? Well, clearly, past technology did not do the trick. Those predictions of the 1970s that workers would have to worry more about what to do with their leisure time than if they could get enough work to make ends meet have not materialised. But would robots now do the trick?
Well, Marxist economics would say no: for two key reasons. First, Marxist theory starts from the undeniable fact that only when human beings do any work or perform labour is anything produced, apart from that provided by natural resources. And then, crucially, only labour can create value under capitalism. And value is specific to capitalism. Sure, living labour can create things and deliver services. But value is the substance of the capitalist mode of producing things. Capital (the owners) controls the means of production created by labour and will only put them to use in order to appropriate value created by labour. Capital does not create value itself.
Now, if the whole world of technology, consumer products and services could reproduce itself without living labour going to work and could do so through robots, then commodities and services would be produced, but the creation of value (in particular, profit or surplus value) would not. So accumulation under capitalism would cease well before robots took over fully, because profitability would disappear. As ‘capital-biased’ technology increased, the organic and value composition of capital would also rise and thus labour would eventually create insufficient value to sustain profitability (ie, surplus value relative to all costs of capital). We would never get to a robotic society; we would never get to a workless leisure society - not under capitalism. Crises and social explosions would intervene well before that.
Kenneth Rogoff pitched in on Gordon’s predictions in a recent article.13 He agreed that there were obstacles to continuing the ‘previous success’ of capitalism. There was environmental degradation; growing inequality within countries; ageing populations that do not work; and the risk of financial crashes. Yet he remained optimistic that capitalism can overcome these challenges. After all,
so far, every prediction in the modern era that mankind’s lot will worsen, from Thomas Malthus to Karl Marx, has turned out to be spectacularly wrong … despite a disconcerting fall in labour’s share of income in recent decades, the long-run picture still defies Marx’s prediction that capitalism would prove immiserating for workers. Living standards around the world continue to rise.
Rogoff continued that technological progress has trumped obstacles to economic growth in the past:
Will each future generation continue to enjoy a better quality of life than its immediate predecessor? In developing countries that have not yet reached the technological frontier, the answer is almost certainly yes. In advanced economies, though the answer should still be yes, the challenges are becoming formidable.
So the mainstream economists remain broadly optimistic about the future of capitalism, despite Gordon’s prognostications - not surprisingly.
If and when the long depression comes to an end, capitalism could get a further kick forward from exploiting the hundreds of millions coming into the labour forces of Asia, South America and the Middle East. This would be a classic way of compensating for the falling rate of profit in the mature capitalist economies.
So maybe the mainstream economists will be proved right and the new technology in the pipeline will be applied by a resurgent capitalist revival to boost productivity and growth, but Gordon’s evidence suggests otherwise.
Closer to endpoint
Keynes reckoned that, once the economic problem had been solved, the terrible morality of money-making (the root of all evil) could be dispelled:
The love of money as a possession - as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life - will be recognised for what it is: a somewhat disgusting morbidity; one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.
Here Keynes believed that the flaws in capitalism would gradually disappear and thus there was no need for the replacement of the capitalist mode of production itself. Once there was control of population growth, an end to wars and a trust in science and technology, then the rate of accumulation would balance between production and consumption and there would be no more recessions and depressions. This was a sort of utopianism that Marxism is usually accused of.
Marxist analysis reveals the historic limits to the capitalist mode of production. If you accept the accuracy of Esteban Maito’s evidence on trajectory of the world rate of profit and “If the rate of profit measures the vitality of the capitalist system, the logical conclusion is that it is getting closer to its endpoint.” Maito argues that “the arguments claiming that there is an inexhaustible capacity of capital to restore the rate of profit and its own vitality, and which therefore considers the capitalist mode of production as a natural and ahistorical phenomenon, are refuted by the empirical evidence.” Indeed, Maito estimates that the current trajectory of the downward trend in the world rate of profit suggests that it would reach zero by the middle of this century.14
Of course, a breakdown in the capitalist mode of production would take place well before profitability falls to zero. Indeed, periodic crises of overproduction would lead to a devaluation and destruction of capital values that would restore profitability, putting off the “endpoint”. But it is still there, showing the historic limits of the most successful and destructive mode of production in human history.
Michael Roberts blogs at https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com.
5. Eg, in the Communist manifesto they write: “The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground - what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?” (www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm).
7. R Harrod The life of John Maynard Keynes London 1972, p469.
9. E Maito, ‘The historical transience of capital.The downward trend in the rate of profit since XIX century’: https://thenextrecession.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/maito-esteban-the-historical-transience-of-capital-the-downward-tren-in-the-rate-of-profit-since-xix-century.pdf.
10. RJ Gordon, ‘Is US economic growth over?’: www.nber.org/papers/w18315; and www.voxeu.org/article/us-economic-growth-over.
11. Gordon, March 3 2014.
12. www.secondmachineage.com/ and http://andrewmcafee.org.
13. K Rogoff, ‘Malthus, Marx and modern growth’: www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/kenneth-rogoff-identifies-several-obstacles-to-keeping-living-standards-on-an-upward-trajectory.
14. E Maito op cit.