Marginal contribution nonsense

Jay-and-Ani

Consider two imaginary artists, Jay and Ani. Jay raps about problems not caused by women and Ani sings ballads about problems created by men.

Unequivocally Jay is more popular. At almost any time and place more people want to listen to Jay than Ani. Of course popularity is not the only measure of worth. We could make qualitative arguments as to why Ani’s work should be more prominent, and these ultimately translate to predictions about hidden preferences: Maybe everyone will value her more in the future, or some people value her really strongly, or would value her if it weren’t for marketing. We’ll return to these concepts later.  But for now let us concede that the market has ranked Jay’s contribution higher than Ani’s.

How much higher is Jay’s contribution relative to Ani’s? Today, Jay is 50 times richer. Does this mean his contribution to the world through music is 50 times greater? Not so fast!

Suppose our wonderful artists started their careers in the 1900’s. There’s no amplification and no recording, so all they can do is acoustic concerts in relatively small halls. Jay is still more popular and manages to book 3 times as many gigs. In these circumstances where the artist’s product scales with their labor we can say that yes, Jay’s contribution is 3 times Ani’s or close enough.

Then it’s 1950 and we have amplification. Now people can gather to really big concerts in stadiums. Jay can pull in the big crowd and earns 10 times as much as Ani who’s still doing small gigs. Did Jay just expand his contribution, or did the work of engineers and athletes and builders do that?

Fast forward to 1980 and someone invents CDs. Imagine at first there’s only two CDs on the market, Jay’s work and Ani’s work, and they’re very expensive. Let’s say they’re $100 so consumers can only afford one. Forced to choose, the vast majority of people go for Jay’s CD and he ends up selling 100 times as much as Ani. Is his contribution now 100 times greater? Why? What changed since the acoustic days?

A few years later in the 1990s publishers have figured out how to make CDs cheaply and price them properly, so now they’re $10. Suddenly consumers can afford to buy both Jay’s and Ani’s work, and Jay is now making 50 times Ani’s sales. Did their relative contribution actually change?

Now it’s 2010 and some geeks invented streaming music. They charge $10 a month and let you listen to whatever you like, distributing money to artists according to how often each song is played. Now people have access to both Jay’s and Ani’s work and it turns out that Jay’s work gets played 200 times more than Ani’s. Wait, what happened? Jay now earns 200 times as much as Ani. Does that reflect his contribution, or is his music more everyday entertainment compared to Ani’s deep stuff?

Now let’s revisit the qualitative questions about worth that we parked at the start. Is it correct to reward artists according to how many times their songs get played? What if people value listening to Ani’s songs occasionally, or just having the option to listen? Remember people don’t pay per listen, they pay a flat fee. What if artists were rewarded progressively, say by the log or square root of play counts? What if the money was apportioned by listener ratings, or an even more direct listener choice to support specific artists? Changing the model of what’s essentially an interpretation of the subscriber’s preferences completely changes the valuation of each artist’s work.

The moral for economists is that marginal contribution is nonsense. A meritocratic market can rank contributions with plausible veracity but says nothing about the magnitude of contributions. Earnings are an emergent result of technology, ownership, legal structures, trust, marketing, and other factors. These factors determine the shape of the earnings curve – how much winners win and losers lose. A meritocracy, at best, defines who the winners are.

Income from capital is where the fun is

I’m half way through Piketty’s book but have a methodological criticism.In keeping with convention, Piketty classifies the income of top professionals such as managers as “income from labour” if it’s paid as salary. He classifies as “income form capital” only overtly financial income such as rents, dividends, capital gains on shares, etc. I agree in accounting terms but not in economic terms, and as such I feel Piketty’s conventional approach paints a more optimistic picture of the ratio of income from capital vs. income from labour than is actually pertinent.

Arguably it’s more correct in terms of economic analysis to treat upper middle class incomes, especially the incomes of managers and professionals in tech, pharma, banking, and other sectors with highly concentrated capital structures as deriving from capital, even if these people receive their income through salaries. The justification is twofold:

Firstly, if we also assume the conventional notion that salary for labour is compensation for one’s time, that implies the intrinsic worth of a top professional’s time is several times higher than that of an ordinary worker. That reveals an extremely discriminatory conception of human worth, which is also implausible. Much more likely, top professionals are highly compensated for something that they have, human capital, and not for yielding their Marxian capacity for labour. Arguments about diligence or laziness are about yielding a different capacity for labour, say 90 vs. 30 hours a week, and they may have some truth but however generously they don’t account for more than a 2x or 3x pay difference.

So the high pay of top managers and professionals must derive from a kind of human capital. What kind of capital would that be? I speculate it’s a mixture of skill and trust, with the major difference deriving from trust. Skill is things like being a good lawyer or a fabulous programmer, largely the result of practice and education. Trust is who you know and how you are perceived, and in particular the perception as to how faithfully you’ll serve the interests of capital. Trust, not skill, in my view is what distinguishes CEOs and VPs from mere mortals and what gets them invited and placed into these roles in the first place. But it is a resource. Trust is something that an elite enjoys and the multitude doesn’t automatically have, so it’s capital, not labour in the sense of capacity to do work.

The second justification is considering where the efforts of different kinds of waged employees go. The daily efforts of an ordinary worker, such a delivery driver, industrial worker, sales clerk, customer service attendant, and so on unequivocally go into production. That accords to the familiar production function of a firm, combining labour, capital, and other factors to achieve production. But crucially, the efforts of ordinary workers do not change the capital stock of the firm or the coefficients of the production function. In that sense labour is a dispensable commodity and its return scales linearly with the turnover of the firm all other things being equal. This activity, I argue, is correctly captured by the classical term “labour”.

The efforts of highly paid managers and professionals, in contrast, overwhelmingly go into capital formation. A Google employee who creates the company’s next innovation, a pharmaceutical researcher, or a financial deal maker are not contributing labour as an input into production. They work to increase the capital stock of the firm, and they do so qualitatively, so that the increase in the coefficients of the firm’s production function compounds exponentially. Top professionals are directly rewarded for their multiplicative effect on the production function, which arguably means their income should be properly classified as income from capital however the money is actually paid.

If we account for top professional incomes as incomes from capital as opposed to labour we will arrive, I think, at an even more alarming picture concerning the yield of capital vs. the yield of labour than Piketty already paints. And I think that truly reflects reality as we observe the relative bargaining powerlessness of capital (who cares if your strike if capacity to do work vastly outstrips demand) compared to the leverage enjoyed by the class of people who work in capital formation.

Beyond the economics, metaphysically it’s worth noting that all the good jobs, in the sense of initiative, sense of achievement, intrinsically rewarding activity, and so on today are in capital formation. Tech workers tend to have an optimistic view of the state of the world because, by and large, we work in capital formation, an experience that even at the lowest level is qualitatively different from those who truly work in production. All the fun jobs are in capital formation and that is a very serious problem in many dimensions.

Economies are graphs, study them as graphs

Economies are graphs. The workings of economies would be better illuminated if economics were developed as a study of graphs, the things with nodes and edges, instead of aggregate stocks and flows.

A person is a node in the graph. Real value (goods and services) flows from one person to the other in a direction that we label with an arrow, and sometimes money flows in the opposite direction. The purpose of money is to shortcut loops or debts of value reciprocity that would otherwise take too long to balance. When you want interdependence you don’t settle in cash, which is why you don’t pay for gifts or for the services of family members and co-workers.

An artisan is a person who delivers value directly to customers and gets paid immediately or soon along the same arc. In a market, like a Sunday fruit market, arcs are transient but in other situations arcs are long lived and capture trade relationships including trade debt. Customers can put up money at the end of arcs to motivate them, and we call this demand. The social function of money is largely to motivate value arcs that would otherwise be hard to negotiate. The fact that money sometimes accumulates is an aberration.

A market is a device for arc formation. A variety market such as a bazaar or department store serves to reveal and create the value arcs that meet demand, by rewarding certain links among the vast space of possible production. It’s a network phenomenon with persistence, like learning in the brain. The kind of commodity market much loved by economists is a much lesser creature. It aims to create and destroy arcs instantly, in atomic transactions, to avoid long term graph formation and only accumulate the money imbalance. At best it’s an inefficient method for optimising aggregates.

Companies and families are structurally the same, in that individuals send value to each other according to internal relationships without getting paid by the receivers. They’re explicitly not markets. Money arrives at some distinguished nodes and gets shared along different arcs than the value flow. People tend to identify and be invested with their outgoing value arc, not the incoming money arc – this is what I do, not that’s what I get paid – and when the opposite happens it’s a dysfunction.

People pass incoming value as well as add their own, such as when a leader or seller delivers a finished item, or when an academic synthesises the wisdom of others. Value creation is a graph process quite distinct from money capture. Everyone understands value creation by aggregating flow on their graph and most approach it with a well-developed moral sense, egalitarian or biased. Few people have the inclination or low morals to monopolise money capture in the opposite direction.

Value flows will in general be unbalanced, from the more to the less productive, in an economy or any meaningful subgraph or time period. They have to be unbalanced if they are optimally large. Debt will maintain unbalanced flows that may be desirable, but is not a device to achieve balance or fairness. We have to set up, as societies, the value flows that we want including unbalanced transfers for education, misfortune, or old age.

Money accumulates because the settlement of transactions is not perfect and economic graphs such as firms are set to aggregate this imbalance, though not as a direct mirror of value flow. Wealth aggregates to different people and more unequally than their value contribution, because graphs have evolved to make it so. There’s no guarantee or even tendency for wealth to mirror value creation in the long run; there are just emergent graph effects and motives to steer them.

Value flows matter. Money flows in the end should not, although today they do. In the short run and all other things being equal, money and finance serve to motivate and adjust value flows differentially. Beyond that, any large accumulation of wealth or debt is emergent and arbitrary. It should not be treated as power or bondage, but as a relative claim to future flows made self-limiting by inflation.

Someone who is unemployed has no outgoing arcs. No-one wants their value output, perhaps because they have no incoming arcs either: No training, no colleagues or equipment, etc. A menial service worker or someone in a predatory profession like a spammer recognises that they transmit zero or negative value. All are unhappy, in the psychological sense of lacking purpose or value, even if some money somehow flows in their direction by other means.

What about a person who cultivates themselves, through erudition or physical training? In graph theory that’s a node with an arc pointing to itself, and can be formalised the same as other value transfers. Perhaps value towards self will later join output for others, such as when studying before publishing. Leisure is then either a restorative value transfer, i.e. useful, or if it achieves nothing it’s the absence of value flow.

In either case, utility is a relatively transient attribute of the self. It’s things like energy, joy, hunger, tiredness, sleep, etc. People consume value including leisure to increase their utility and partly damage it by working, mostly in a daily or weekly cycle. Work is a disutility insofar as it damages us, and a utility when it makes us greater. In a graph theory of the economy utility is more of a temporary, limiting but also self-correcting, state of individuals than something that could be amassed, precisely calculated, or time shifted.

Incidentally a lazy person is someone who, for one reason or another, needs to consume more leisure to restore their utility. To be more productive, learn to rest more efficiently. Firms that emphasise the quality of the work experience recognise this. Grim dwellings for the poor destroy utility.

Most value flow is not in markets with transient arcs and immediate settlement but along economic relationships that have some permanence: Family, work, knowledge, reputation, trust, social contribution. People like to adjust their graph connections to gain higher status, but they don’t seek an extemporaneous, fully market disciplined existence.

Although utility and value transfers are in the here and now, people desire security for the future. The need for security is a preference for being included in the value graph of the future. People invest in their position in the graph of the present, by and large the outgoing value arcs, during their productive years, and expect some reciprocity i.e. to receive flows value in young and old age.

Ordinarily we treat these as social value-debts shared by the immediate graph neighbourhood: Family, professional guild, nation or other social group. Increasingly we’ve treated these time shift problems as money-debts: Student loans, private savings. Since the purpose of money is explicitly to avoid permanence or long-term reciprocity, this fails to engender security. Far too much money is amassed to achieve security for a few, creating a massive loss of utility. And that, too, is an aberration.

Economies are graphs. Study them as graphs.

The American Dream will have to be revised

The republican party lost the election despite fielding the most competent, centrist, and generally acceptable candidate since Bush sr, or even including him. The hate fringe didn’t help the GOP, but it’s not what lost them the election either. The republicans still got nearly half the vote despite including individuals who would alienate more than half of the population. It’s not the individuals, it’s the policies that lost the elections.

The issue at the heart is the future vision for the individualist and affluent society that we call the American Dream. All can see that the dream has ran into problems lately. Instead of delivering prosperity and self-actualization America seems mired in social stress and inequality. The parties differ as to what to do about that. The democrats feel that the Dream has veered and want to do a course correction. The republicans are panicking and would desperately step on the gas.

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