Monday, January 16, 2012

Corporations and Wealth Concentration

I have some posts in the kitty, but I haven't felt like writing lately - and in particular right now because I've got my first epic head cold of the winter season. I saw this comment for this article and thought it was interesting. I have not confirmed the factual accuracy, however.

In 1860 the U.S. had the broadest distribution of wealth in history despite 10% being slaves. We went to war to fix that. Yet 25 years after a successful outcome to the war, wealth was more concentrated ever. Why? The invention of the limited liability corporation in 1862. Corporations are ownership collectives that massively shift bargaining power away from Employees. That gap narrowed only with collective bargaining. Collective bargaining withered in the 1980s.

The corporate structure makes it easy to concentrate wealth. With the rise of global corporation like WalMart, local economies were decimated in favor of corporations who could ship goods from all around the world. These underlying causes of wealth inequality are rarely discussed. On a related note, see this: Business leaders of today are not capitalists.
Let’s talk about the market economy, by John Kay, Commentary, Financial Times: ...Karl Marx never used the word capitalism. But after the publication of Das Kapital, the term came to describe the system of business organization which had made the industrial revolution possible. By the mid-19th century ... individuals or ... a small group of active partners ... built and owned both the factories and plants in which the new working class was employed... The economic and political power of business leaders derived from their ownership of capital and the control that ownership gave them over the means of production and exchange.

The political and economic environment in which Marx wrote was a brief interlude in economic history. ... Legislation passed in Marx’s time permitted the establishment of the limited liability company, which made it possible to build businesses with widely dispersed share ownership. ...

So the business leaders of today are not capitalists in the sense in which Arkwright and Rockefeller were capitalists. Modern titans derive their authority and influence from their position in a hierarchy, not their ownership of capital. They have obtained these positions through their skills in organizational politics, in the traditional ways bishops and generals acquired positions in an ecclesiastical or military hierarchy. ...

People do not know who owns their work tools because the answer does not matter. If your boss pushes you around, exploits you or appropriates your surplus value, the reasons have nothing to do with the ownership of capital..., ownership of the means of production and exchange matters very little.

Sloppy language leads to sloppy thinking. By continuing to use the 19th-century term capitalism for an economic system that has evolved into something altogether different, we are liable to misunderstand the sources of strength of the market economy and the role capital plays within it.

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