According to Krugman, the evil robber barons have made a comeback, benefiting from monopolies, and it is up to the government to save us -- and make the economy more "efficient" at the same time. He asks how it is that the economy can be depressed even while corporate profits are at high levels. Is the old Marxist "capital versus labor" argument back in play?
Krugman, apparently not wanting to go quite as far as his forebears like John Kenneth Galbraith, says that maybe a different explanation is needed, writing:
Why is this happening? As best as I can tell, there are two plausible explanations, both of which could be true to some extent. One is that technology has taken a turn that places labor at a disadvantage; the other is that we’re looking at the effects of a sharp increase in monopoly power. Think of these two stories as emphasizing robots on one side, robber barons on the other.First, the attack language is the type of thing that one has come to expect from Krugman whenever he speaks of private enterprise. He cannot explain how it might be that people who cannot coerce anyone into making an exchange are engaging in acts of theft, but if the government forces someone to do something at the point of a gun, that is "community" or "caring for the poor."
Second, his overall explanation of why we have higher rates of unemployment among college-educated workers harkens back to the days of FDR when the government was claiming that "automation" or "capital" was the cause of the employment problems. He continues:
About the robots: there’s no question that in some high-profile industries, technology is displacing workers of all, or almost all, kinds. For example, one of the reasons some high-technology manufacturing has lately been moving back to the United States is that these days the most valuable piece of a computer, the motherboard, is basically made by robots, so cheap Asian labor is no longer a reason to produce them abroad.This reminds me of the Paul Craig Roberts's claim that if capital is mobile across international borders, the Law of Opportunity Cost no longer applies (which is a way of saying that mobile capital eliminates the Law of Scarcity). Actually, the actual "law" is the Law of Comparative Advantage, but in truth, comparative advantage is just a restatement and application of opportunity cost.
In a recent book, “Race Against the Machine,” M.I.T.’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that similar stories are playing out in many fields, including services like translation and legal research. What’s striking about their examples is that many of the jobs being displaced are high-skill and high-wage; the downside of technology isn’t limited to menial workers.
Still, can innovation and progress really hurt large numbers of workers, maybe even workers in general? I often encounter assertions that this can’t happen. But the truth is that it can, and serious economists have been aware of this possibility for almost two centuries. The early-19th-century economist David Ricardo is best known for the theory of comparative advantage, which makes the case for free trade; but the same 1817 book in which he presented that theory also included a chapter on how the new, capital-intensive technologies of the Industrial Revolution could actually make workers worse off, at least for a while — which modern scholarship suggests may indeed have happened for several decades.
However, what Krugman does not say is that government regulation -- and especially the spate of regulation that has come about through the Obama administration -- also results in stratification of the workplace. The reason is that regulations tend to try to classify and formalize everything and force requirements of specific areas of formal education for any number of jobs that really should not require that much education.
Furthermore, government regulations tend to make hiring much more bureaucratic and formalized, which makes it more costly to hire workers. Yes, the government says it is trying to keep employers from engaging in certain kinds of discrimination, but the end result is that the regulatory state forces up real costs of production and hiring, and that those costs ultimately are borne by workers.
When one adds the real costs that governments at all levels impose upon people wanting to start up even small businesses, it should not be surprising that the very kinds of laws of which people like Krugman approve are making the entrepreneurial transitions very costly. (Oh, I forgot. When governments effectively mandate higher business costs, that also is a good thing, since higher costs supposedly mean more spending, and everyone knows that more spending brings back recovery.)
There is another problem, and that is that government regulations that pertain to labor also make the addition of capital more attractive than it otherwise might be in a free market. Yes, I know it might be shocking to admit that government regulations just might change the terms of opportunity cost.
But Krugman is not satisfied there. No, the evil capitalists not only are using robots and permanently displacing workers, but they also are engaging in creating monopolies:
What about robber barons? We don’t talk much about monopoly power these days; antitrust enforcement largely collapsed during the Reagan years and has never really recovered. Yet Barry Lynn and Phillip Longman of the New America Foundation argue, persuasively in my view, that increasing business concentration could be an important factor in stagnating demand for labor, as corporations use their growing monopoly power to raise prices without passing the gains on to their employees.Earth to Krugman: every academic economist should know that wages and salaries are not "passed on" by employers; they are payments to owners of the factor of production known as labor. Second, while economists like Krugman (and, of course, the usual places like the leftist Daily Kos) make the assumption that profits exist at the expense of workers, the truth is that in a free market, profits are what an entrepreneur will earn if he or she makes the correct assumption regarding present prices for factors of production versus perceived future prices for final goods. Without the possibility of profits, those jobs and, more important, the quality of the goods people can purchase, would not exist.
Investor and writer Kel Kelly notes that at the present time, the inflationary policies of the Federal Reserve System have more to do with the present state of corporate profits than any entrepreneurial success of many of these firms. When one adds that the Obama administration actively has promoted what essentially is crony capitalism, or corporatism, we should not be surprised if politically-favored firms tend to do better.
On a larger point, it would seem that high corporate profits would invite more entrepreneurial activity and more competition, but that clearly is not happening. In a free market, there would be nothing out of the ordinary that would would block entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial firms from pursing those opportunities and, in the process, compete for those profits. However, given the overt hostility of the Obama administration to entrepreneurs in general (or at least entrepreneurs that seek to compete in real markets rather than the government's crony markets) and the fact that every year or so, there is a huge political tug-of-war regarding business and individual tax rates, we should not be surprised that there is not more long-term business investment.
Of course, Krugman holds that the best way to deal with this problem is through government coercion and specifically through anti-trust litigation and higher taxes. Now, someone will have to explain to me how we can revitalize the business sector by unleashing regulators, federal prosecutors, and the IRS on business owners and investors, but I guess that since those people drive up costs, we will assume that they will "spend" their largess and make the economy stronger.