19

The Fall and Rise of Racket Capitalism

Frank Lee

David Ricardo, 1772-1823

Delving back into the history of Economic Thought[1] perhaps the most important contributions were made by the British Classical tradition starting with Adam Smith (1723-1790) followed by David Ricardo (1772-1823) and finally Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), all of whom made significant contributions to the study of political economy and the politics of their time.

Perhaps overlooked among this quartet is the contribution made by Ricardo. Generally speaking, his principal concepts were:

1. The theory of ground rent
2. The theory of trade and comparative advantage
3. The theory of diminishing returns
4. The Labour theory of value.

(This last paradigm was initially based upon Smith’s insights and was to receive its final elaboration from Marx.)

Born in London, David Ricardo was the third son of a Sephardic Jewish family of Portuguese origin who had recently relocated from the Dutch Republic.

His father, Abraham Ricardo, was a successful stockbroker He began working with his father at the age of 14. At age 21, Ricardo eloped with a Quaker, Priscilla Anne Wilkinson, and, against his father’s wishes, converted to the Unitarian faith.

This religious difference – Judaism and Christianity – resulted in estrangement from his family, and he was led to adopt a position of independence. His father disowned him, and his mother apparently never spoke to him again.

In political terms, Ricardo was part of the radical intelligentsia for whom history was a cyclical rather than linear process. This is clearly reflected in his views as well as other of his contemporaries (including opponents) such as close friend, Thomas Malthus.

What Ricardo foresaw was rather different from the vogueish theories of the times regarding social and political evolution. The then-fashionable zeitgeist was a historiography which presented the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy; an unstoppable process in which everyone moved together up the escalator of progress.

But unlike this consensus view, Ricardo saw that the escalator worked with different effects for different classes.

Some rose triumphantly to the top, whilst others, who managed to move up a few rungs of the ladder could be kicked down to the bottom; whilst those who got the full benefit of the ride, the landed aristocracy, did nothing at all to earn their reward – this being the attribute of power of the soil and the rent on land.

For earlier orthodox adherents, such as Adam Smith and his co-thinkers, society was one great family; but for  Ricardo it was an internally divided camp: the industrial/manufacturing bourgeois class against on one side and rentier land-owning class on the other.

In the great historical contest between the landed aristocracy and the industrial bourgeoisie Ricardo stood decisively on the side of the latter. In his time the industrial bourgeoisie still played a progressive historical role, and its ideologues still felt themselves leaders of the entire people in the struggle against the aristocracy and the monarchy.[2]

Ricardo’s animus toward the land-owning classes was, in-part, based upon this theory of economic rent as outlined in his definitive work, The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation first published in 1817.

From the outset he was engaged in a class struggle against the landed aristocracy and other economic and financial strata; classes whom he saw as essentially parasitic and a barrier to economic and social development.

The Theory itself

Suppose, says Ricardo, there are two neighbouring landlords.

On one landlord’s fields, the soil is fertile, and with the labour of a hundred men and a given amount of equipment, he can raise 1500 bushels of wheat. On the second landlord’s field, the soil is less fecund; the same men and their equipment can only raise one 1000 bushels.

This is merely a fact of nature, but it has an economic consequence; the grain will be cheaper per bushel on the fortunate landlord’s estate. Obviously, since both landlords must pay the same wages and capital expenses, there will be an advantage in cost to the man who secures 500 more bushels than his competitor.

It is this difference in costs that rent springs. For if the demand is high enough to warrant tilling the soil on the less productive farm it will certainly be a very profitable operation to raise grain on the more productive farm.

Indeed, the greater difference between the two farms, the greater will be the differential rent. If, for example, it is just barely profitable to raise grain at a cost of £2 a bushel on very infertile land, then certainly a fortunate landowner whose rich soil produces grain at only 50 pence a bushel will gain a large rent indeed. For both farms will sell their grain on the market at the same price say £2 the owner of the better ground will, therefore, be able to pocket the difference of £1.50 in their respective costs of production.

No-rent or Marginal Land:

In the diagram below the most productive land (A) has the highest yield 35 quintiles. The marginal land (D) which just covers its expenses and no more. This land is called ‘no-rent land’. All rents are measured from it upwards.

‘D’ quality and land which produces 20 quintals per plot is the marginal land. Here the return and cost are equal. It is just worthwhile cultivating this land, since it just covers expenses of cultivation and yields no surplus to the cultivator. Thus, the concept of economic rent, more broadly applied, means a rent (surplus) income over and above the normal/average income which normally accrues to factors of production.

RENT AND FINANCIALISATION

It was Ricardo’s theory of ground rent which seems particularly relevant to the present impasse of global capitalism. Fast forward to the present day and it becomes clear that this theory always has been, and still is, an embedded feature of monopolistic and oligopolistic market structures.

Large and/or dominant firms or groups of firms (cartels) have used their muscle to extract rent as the additional increments to their cost-price. In their defence it should be said that they have at least produced some value (wealth).

Today, however, there has been a  return to an extractive rent-seeking by financial entities which do not produce any real value or wealth at all. In this latter sense, wealth is not produced but is simply redistributed. Finance, which was once a small part of the economy, has now metastasized into an unchecked excrescence on the body of the real value-producing economy.

This shift from production to distribution has been termed – financialization. The term itself is generally used as a reference to that part of the economy indicated by the acronym FIRE (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) and its growing importance in the economy in both qualitative and quantitative terms.

Financialization is a process whereby financial markets, financial institutions, and financial elites gain greater influence over economic policy and economic outcomes. Financialization transforms the functioning of economic systems at both the macro and micro levels. 

Its principal impacts are to (i) elevate the significance of the financial sector relative to the real value -producing sector, (ii) transfer income from the real value-producing sector to the financial sector, and increase income inequality and contribute to wage stagnation

This ongoing transformative process represents a structural change in the nature of the late capitalist economy. Principally the relationship between the value-creating manufacturing sector and the FIRE sector – that is to say, the creative part of the economy and the distributive part. Finance has increasingly taken on a life form of its own relegating manufacturing industry to the second tier.

Financialization is a pattern of accumulation that relies increasingly on profit making through financial channels even for firms which are not financial.

General Motors in the US, for example, had a trading and finance sector which was to grow larger than its existing auto-vehicle operation.

(It is worth pointing out that it was GM’s unsuccessful dabbling in the financial markets in 2007/08 was a maladroit move which backfired and required a bail-out. Obama, being the friend and associate of impecunious corporate oligarchies, stumped up the rescue funds – a cool $50 billion. But big O did not extend this largesse to the city of Detroit, which was broke and needed $13 billion to cover its running costs. Interestingly, it is worth noting that Detroit had a large African-American population. Make of that what you will.)

Banks, of course,  are the archetypal rent-seeking financial institution. Loans for mortgages, for example, are simply a licence to print money. Whenever a successful application for a mortgage loan is made the bank in question simply debits the applicant’s account by tapping the amount of the loan into the computer. The costs to the bank – as lender –  are zero. The money is simply loaned into existence. It is now the bank’s asset gaining a stream rental income for the foreseeable future. Should the rental stream stop the bank simply forecloses and takes control of the property.

For the mortgagee, the mortgage represents a liability – entailing a lifetime’s debt repayment schedule.

The rent-seeking behaviour of modern banking has meant that the traditional role of banks was to grease the wheels of industry by granting loans for productive investment.

However, this relationship has undergone a fundamental transformation. Most banks will make loans for property speculation and for share/stock buybacks and acquisitions and mergers, whilst small and medium-sized enterprises are starved of investment capital.

It should be understood that no new value has been created here,  just price increases and the increase of rental flows from lender to borrower and back. Rinse once and repeat – over and over.

At the same time, banks have paid higher bonuses to their staff through increased dividends, and/or returned surplus capital to their shareholders through share buybacks. Finance which was once subservient to the needs of industrial/manufacturing capital and enterprise, has now become parasitic upon  it. Thus, in the present rent-extractive economy different groups are rewarded and others penalised.

In terms of Oligopolistic/monopolistic corporate industries, these are able to engage in this appropriation of rental income practice due to their market structures.

For example, the manufacturers of cocoa/chocolate commodities – global corporations such as Hershey, Nestle, Kraft, are a case in point. They are vertically integrated backwards – a structure and process consisting of (a) harvesting the raw material, (b) manufacturing and (c) retail distribution.  The pricing policies of these organizations are administered rather than market determined.

That is to say the operation of growing and buying cocoa beans in West Africa which will be left to local affiliates and subsidiaries. The downstream operation then takes over, consisting of roasting, milling, and packaging, all of which are value-added processes; then the final product is transported to their home markets, usually shops and supermarket chains.

It will be seen that most value-added takes place after the purchase of the beans, so that the African farmers receive very little income. The above corporations are characteristic of global oligopolies where buying prices are determined by the buyers themselves – i.e., oligopsony/monopsony. This significantly reduces production costs.

Moreover, this sale of the product mostly takes place in supermarkets whose concentration ratio means that the set the selling price over and above the costs of production. This surplus constitutes the economic rent of monopoly/oligopoly.

Defining economic rent as the unnecessary margin of prices over intrinsic cost value, classical economists through Ricardo as well as Marx described rentiers as being economically parasitic, not productive. Rentiers do not “earn” their land rent, interest or monopoly rent, because it has no basis in real cost-value (ultimately reducible to labour costs).

The political, fiscal and regulatory reforms that followed from this value and rent theory were an important factor leading to Marx’s value theory and historical materialism. The political thrust of this theory explains why it is no longer being taught.”[3]

Exacerbating the point even further these corporations then fatten up the bottom line by the process of transfer pricing (that’s another extensive article!) further reducing their costs.

Apart from monopoly rewards rent can take transmute into many other forms and is becoming the predominant type of exploitation at the present time.

Subsidies, for example, are a particularly pernicious type of rent. These are income streams appropriated by the owners of land, property, mineral rights, intellectual property and financial assets – all of which is entirely rental income.

Such free income flows are not gained from hard work or productivity gains, and moreover, they are worsening inequality whilst giving rental income to the worse type of speculative activities and to some very undeserving individuals and corporations.

Subsidies to corporations are transfers of unearned rental income to capital. They have become part of the rhetoric of competitiveness. Countries are waging economic war using subsidies to attract capital, patent holders, property tycoons and other plutocrats and to help exporters, with export incentives and credit guarantees. One study concluded that 90% of the exports from the world’s poorest countries had to compete with subsidised commodities from the richer countries…

Subsidies to rentiers can take the form of selective tax rates, tax breaks of various kinds and opportunities for tax avoidance (and evasion) as well as direct subsidies. Tax credits to top up low wages are subsidies to capital, since they reduce the firms’ labour costs.[4]

DEBT AS RENT

The principal aim of all rent-seeking entities is to saddle as many people as possible with debt who – from the lenders point of view – will hopefully remain in debt producing a stream of rental income in perpetuity. This will produce an income/wealth distribution which becomes increasingly skewed whereby the rentier-rich become increasingly richer, and the rest, particularly those below median income, increasingly poorer and increasingly indebted.

In recent economic history the process involved a feed-back loop which starting with an ideological sea-change, circa 1980.

Phase 1 – Involved a rejection of the post-war consensus 1945-75, and the ascendency of neo-liberalism and globalization.
Phase 2 – Predictably enough these ‘theories’ led to the ensuing economic blowouts of 1987, 2001 and 2008 (and one baked into the cake coming shortly).
Phase 3 – Enter austerity and stagnant and falling wages and other income, but with sharp increases in specific asset classes, property stock and bonds.
Phase 4 – Aggregate demand was propped up by easy credit policies from the Central Banks around the world and borrowing from other myriad lenders, e.g., commercial banks and the shadow banking sector.
Phase 5 – The outcome, wholly predictable, was more debt.
Phase 6 – This in its turn led to more borrowing with new debt needed to pay the existing debt – round and round we go in a classic Ponzi scheme.

Of course, one doesn’t need a clairvoyant to see where this is going, but the PTB are nonetheless soothing us with hackneyed Panglossian overtures that all is for the best and that what we need is more globalization and neoliberalism not less.

One more push chaps, and we will be in economic Shangri la. Yes, that was the view of British High Command just prior to the battle of the Somme.

THE PRIVATISATON RACKET

The privatisation racket which began with the neoliberal counter-revolution was simply a giveaway of the public sector assets. The auctions of these assets were advertised in advance with Initial Public Offerings (IPO) set at levels  described by one commentator as being ‘like selling £10 notes for £5.’

Naturally, it was a great success. This was followed by other privatisations including the national rail network, the sale of social housing, school playing fields, the partial privatisation of the National Health Service (Work in Progress). More to come.

One of the first targets of the privatisation drives at that time were the utilities, energy and water. This process was to bring into sharp relief the pitfalls of this process and the inability of government to transfer to the private sector its ultimate responsibilities for protecting and promoting the public interest. Moreover, the political class – and I make no distinction between centre-left and centre-right – seemed totally enamoured of ‘free-markets’ ‘capital liberalisation’ deregulation/privatisation and the rest of the neoliberal mumbo-jumbo. These people are both limited and venal with a very limited knowledge of how the system actually works, no do they seem to care. It was not always thus. Historically, Joseph Chamberlain, a British 19th century high-Tory imperialist and stateman was nonetheless a firm believer an interventionist state and public works and eschewed laissez-faire. He argued that:

Regulated monopolies, sustained by the State, in the interests of the inhabitants generally, should be controlled by the representatives of the people, and should not be left in the hands of private speculators”[5]

How very different that sounds from today’s ‘conservatives’.

The majority of these utility privatisations took place during the 1980s, including gas, electricity and water. Most of the key public utilities which might be natural monopolies have clearly demonstrated that in all cases privatisation and deregulation has given rise to substantial price increases for consumers and huge profits for the owners of the companies.

The privatisation of public goods and public profits, which is invariably parroted in terms of alleged benefits and efficiencies of the market and greater opportunities to raise capital for infrastructure investment has often been accompanied by a decline in service quality. In the UK, for example, despite increased investment in the water infrastructure, there are still very substantial daily leakages from water pipes.

A second major implication of the whole privatisation experiment is the lengths at which profit-conscious business executives will go in the manic pursuit of profits to the exclusion of all other considerations and seemingly irrespective of the consequences for the wider public interests.

But no-one should be surprised at this type of behaviour; we live in decadent times after all. But it should be noted that in all of these cases privatisation was simply rent extraction as publicly funded public goods were simply gutted by named private sector looters: private equity, hedge funds, and other itinerant members of the shadow banking fraternity.

Worse still having seen what happens in the private sector, the neoliberal Enragés in government decided to make the public goods available to their supporters and pals in the private sector at knock down prices who were only too keen to join in the pillaging. This might involve a total sale of public goods to the private sector or, conversely,  outsourcing the provision of public goods to the private sector who then received their remuneration from the government.

Successive governments of various political stripes have imbibed the neo-liberal orthodoxy theory and operationalised its practice with regard to the public sector; this is particularly the case in local government and administration. Now the quasi-permanent regime of austerity overseen by the Treasury and Bank of England has demanded, at the very least, part payment for their services in the health, education, social services, parks, housing and so forth.

Local authorities and government departments now insist on charges for their services either directly or through private and privatised intermediaries. Everywhere those surviving public goods which have not been privatised are being nibbled away by what can be described as creeping commodification leading ultimately to what has been called the abolition of the commons.

By way of illustration, I have for many years parked my car off the main road into a small layby on Wimbledon Common in south-west London where I walk my dog.

Recently, parking meters have appeared, meaning public space has been appropriated by a private company who were given the franchise to extract rent by Merton Council. I now have to pay to park and will have to pay a fine if I don’t pay.

What has occurred is nothing less than outright appropriation – in which Merton council played its part – of public space by rent-seeking private interests.

There has always been a tension between ‘the commons’ – that which is open to everyone to use – and ‘commodification’ which turns things into commodities for private ownership and money-making. To adopt Marx’s terminology, the commons had a use-value, not an exchange-value (a market price) simply because it is not – and by definition cannot be – a commodity that cannot be bought, sold or commercialised. The elevation of use-value over exchange-value is integral to the commons.”[6]

Perhaps the first commandment of the privatisation racket is that always and everywhere private is more ‘efficient’ than public. Of course, what the proponents usually mean by this is that it is private is cheaper than public. But even if this were true (which it isn’t) there is little evidence to support these putative claims of the privatisation industry.

Moreover, what these clipboard-carrying advisers and assessors actually do is not very clear. In his hilarious book, ‘Bullshit Jobs’ David Graeber posits the view – a view supported by many of those unfortunate to have a bullshit job – that many if not most of these occupations are basically useless, non-productive and paralyzingly boring.

Furthermore, even useful jobs like teaching and nursing have become increasingly ‘bullshitized’ with endless form-filling, box-ticking and progress reports which nobody ever reads or takes seriously.

The infusion into the public sector of private sector norms and culture has resulted in the introduction of increasing layers of bureaucracy and supervision whose functions are somewhat opaque and therefore less accountable.

In the increasingly privatised National Health Service, private companies seem more intent on profits and rent-seeking than patient care. The former head of the NHS Counter-Fraud Service lambasted the cuts in the service’s budget and staffing, claimed fraud that could be costing up to £1 billion a year.[7]

Social care for the elderly and infirm in the UK has been largely commodified and privatised at very high cost. My own mother before she passed away had to pay for a nursing home place by selling her home to cover the costs. The proceeds were gobbled up by HC-One, an organization describing itself as the ‘Kind Care Company’

The blurb reads:

“HC-One offers professional residential, nursing and specialist dementia care for older people in 335 care homes located throughout England, Scotland and Wales.

The aim is to be the first-choice care home in each community for residents and colleagues and will achieve this mission by providing the kindest possible care to residents. HC-One is pioneering a simple approach, where kindness is the guiding ethos.”

Blah, blah, blah.

But perhaps the jewel in the privatisation crown was the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and the Public Private Partnership (PPP). This was a feature of the ongoing marketisation of the state by a Labour government in the UK but began life initially as a brainchild of the Conservative administration under John Major.

This was a joint infrastructure project involving both the government of the day and private business interests – for which read rent-seekers – in a collaborative adventure whereby private companies might design, build, finance and sometimes operate a facility which provides a public service.

A PFI involves the government contracting with the private sector to provide services which the government will pay for from taxation revenues, but it does not involve the transfer of ownership of any assets to the government.

PPPs in the UK involve which involve private companies designing, building and financing and sometimes operating a facility which provides a public service was introduce on a very modest scale by the Conservative government in 1992.

Subsequently, PPPs were expanded by the Labour government in order to bring increased investment to public services especially in the areas of school building and hospitals.

The purported advantage of PFI/PPP schemes in both Britain and Australia was the apparent transfer of the debt and associated risk for the construction of large infrastructure projects to the private sector. This politically enhances the government’s financial credentials in the short term since in the case of Britain PPPs/PFIs do not appear in the budget against Public Sector Borrowing Requirements thereby allowing the government wiggle-room to borrow for other purposes.

This was ideological manna from heaven for the Blairite nomenklatura given their infatuation with markets.

Arguments – by the usual suspects – were of course put forward arguing that partnerships with the private sector enabled governments to ensure the provision of services which would not be affordable and therefore not provided if they had to be funded by government.

However, what was deemed not worthy of consideration were the potential longer-term financial costs to the taxpayer whilst ever PPPs and PFIs encouraged private firms to design projects which are meant to generate the highest possible profits. Also overlooked was the inability of government to transfer attendant risks to the private contractor.

After the initial New Labour euphoria with all the Blair, Brown, Balls troika’s nauseating self-congratulatory ‘achievements’ the real costs of this boondoggle are now becoming apparent.

By 2016 the PFI trusts were paying £2 billion a year to private companies (a figure set to rise) for building and renovating new hospital and renovating old ones. While the deals by £11.8 in hospital building the trusts will have to pay £79 billion over 25 to 30 years the arrangements last, more than six times the building cost and far more than the government had borrowed on their behalf. Part of the reason for this huge cost  disparity lies fact that private contractors opted to borrow in more expensive markets rather than from the Bank of England where they could have borrowed at reduced interest rates. In a latter newspaper article, the whole fiasco was blown wide open.

The great PFI heist: The real story of how Britain’s economy has been left high and dry by a doomed economic philosophy

PFI debt for the British taxpayer is more than £300bn for infrastructure projects, with a value of £54.7bn. To put it into perspective, the PFI debt is four times the size of the budget deficit used to justify austerity

Sir Howard Davies, chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), made an astonishing admission on BBC1’s current affairs programme, Question Time, when he stated that private finance initiatives (PFI) had been a “fraud on the people”.

Beyond seemingly populist rhetoric, the real story of PFI reveals that RBS alongside other global banks, notably HSBC, were instrumental in what Sir Howard has effectively labelled a great heist.[8]

As Rip-offs go this one was in a league of its own.

In general terms, it is difficult to imagine that this process will be reversed any time soon.  The Transnational global elites and their supporting outer-party loyalists are totally incorrigible, and, in any case,  have too much at stake – both financially and ideologically – and are oblivious to the fact that the system is dysfunctional.

Just as Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Northrop-Grumman are not about to make a volte-face given their vested interest in war. The great tragicomedy will go on orchestrated by a bought media with the usual trumpeting and spectacle,  attempting to conjure up something which is, in fact, nothing more than a Potemkin global economy, along with all the institutions of neo-liberalism, neo-imperialism and globalization in tow. The IMF, WTO, BIS, OECD, WB, OECD together with Investment Banks and Central Banks around the world leading the charge.

Thus, we come full-circle with an economy which has passed from rent-extraction, to value-creation underpinned with public goods,  and back to rent-seeking again with the public goods privatised. Welcome to the neo-feudal wonderland. History seems to be repeating itself. We’ve been here before.

…nothing saved the common people of England from the impact of the Industrial Revolution. A blind faith in spontaneous progress had taken hold of peoples’ minds and with the fanaticisms of sectarianism the most enlightened pressed forward for boundless an unregulated change in society. The effects on the lives of the people were awful beyond description.”[9]

NOTES:-

  • [1] See Isaac Ilyich RubinA History of Economic Thought – a very able Soviet Economist who, unfortunately, like Nikolai Kondratiev disappeared during the great purges during the late 1930s
  • [2] Rubin, Ibid, p.235
  • [3] Michael Hudson – Peking University, School of Marxist Studies May 5-6, 2018
  • [4] S.Evenett and J.Fritz – ‘Throwing Sand in the Wheels: How Foreign Trade Distortions Slowed LDC Export-Led Growth’. Quoted in Guy Standing – The Corruption of Capitalism – 2016 – pp.87/88
  • [5] J.L.Garvin – The Life of Joseph Chamberlain – 1932 – p.192
  • [6] Guy Standing – Ibid, p.171
  • [7] Standing – Ibid, p.191
  • [8] The Independent Newspaper,17-Feb-2018. How to Dismantle the NHS in Ten Easy Steps by Youssef El-Gingihy is published by Zero Books
  • [9] Karl Polyani – The Great Transformation. p.76.