Who Reaps the Harvest?
Those who consider the subject matter of the preceding chapters thoughtfully can hardly fail to be impressed with the extent to which economic errors have been due to looking only at individual details rather than visualizing each situation in its entirety. As in so many other fields of human endeavor, we have been unable to see the forest because of the trees so close around us. The worker who realizes that it would be easier to make both ends meet if his wages were increased naturally jumps to the conclusion that all workers would be benefited by raising all wages, but we know both from theory and from a wealth of actual experience that no such benefit results. The theorist who observes that the increase in demand for a particular commodity that results from a decrease in price concludes that the demand for all goods could be increased by cutting all prices, but we have found that the total effective demand is limited by the amount of purchasing power created through production of goods, and cannot be increased by any kind of price juggling.
The collectivist finds that by getting on the government payroll he can gain an exemption from natural economic laws, and can pursue his visionary aims untroubled by the necessity of producing results commensurate with the cost. So he proposes to solve all economic problems in the same happy and carefree manner by bringing everything under government control. But we know that a higher authority than our national administration has decreed that man must first produce that which he wishes to consume, and we cannot all transfer our share of the burden of production to someone else. The economic patent medicine vendor sees that particular groups of individuals clear up all of their difficulties as if by magic if they can just get a subsidy from the government. So he proposes to eliminate all economic difficulties by subsidizing everybody. But the realities of economic life are not so easily evaded.
All of these misconceptions and many more of the same kind stem from the same cause: a failure to recognize that the situation as a whole is governed by limitations which the individual can escape if he is able to transfer his burdens to someone else. Before concluding this presentation of fundamental economic theory and beginning a discussion of the application of that theory to present-day problems, it will be advisable to review the facts with respect to another of these misconceptions, one that will come up in connection with several of the practical measures that will be considered. The subject in question, the division of the products of the economic system among the major claimants, is not only important from a technical standpoint, but also needs to be clearly understood for the sake of creating a better spirit of cooperation between two important segments of the economy, the suppliers of labor and the suppliers of the services of capital.
When we look at the conditions surrounding an individual enterprise, we find that a part of its income is used to meet miscellaneous expenses, and the balance is available for division between those who furnish the labor and those who supply the capital services. On the face of it, therefore, it would seem that there is a direct conflict of interest between the workers and the suppliers of capital. If the workers get a larger share of the total, those who supply the capital must necessarily get a smaller share, and vice versa.
This view of the situation does not necessarily imply that there is no common interest in which both can participate. On the contrary, it would suggest that any increase in total income is beneficial to both parties, regardless of the proportions in which the division is finally made. But it does definitely indicate that the rewards of the workers and the suppliers of capital will be materially affected by their relative economic and political strength. This is part of the basic philosophy of the labor unions. It is the contention of the unions and of the economists who adopt the view of organized labor, that labor has, on the whole, been “exploited” and has not received a fair share of the products of it efforts. By a combination of political and extra-legal coercive measures the unions have acquired a very substantial economic power, and they claim credit for most, if not all, of the improvement that has taken place in wage standards in the last few decades.
The fundamental economic principles set forth in the preceding pages make it clear that this viewpoint is completely erroneous. Exact analysis shows very definitely that for the system as a whole capital costs are independent of wages, and all efforts of the labor unions or anyone else to increase the general level of real wages at the expense of the suppliers of capital and to secure a larger proportion of the total value of production for the wage earners are futile. The division of the product between wages and capital costs is fixed in total by factors beyond the control of either the employers or the labor unions, and no amount of negotiating or forcible action by either party can alter this proportion.
Here, again, the trees have been preventing a clear view of the forest. The true situation is the same as in the case of a subsidy. If one individual gets a subsidy from the government, he prospers, of course. But it is clear that this gain is made at the expense of the rest of the community, and if we subsidize everyone there is no gain for anyone. Similarly, one individual or one group prospers by getting a wage increase, but any increase in wages necessarily causes an increase in the price level, regardless of what, if anything, business firms may try to do in the way of holding the line. Consequently, the consumers-the general public-pay the bill. A wage increase for everyone is like a subsidy for everyone; there is no gain to anyone.
This does not mean that the labor union efforts to secure higher wages are useless to the particular workers involved. On the contrary, the economic status of each member of society is as much a matter of relative advantage within the group as it is of the true level of prosperity. In the continual ebb and flow of economic life it is necessary for everyone to maintain a jealous watch on his relative standing in order that he may not lose the benefit of a rise in the general standard of living by a lowering of his relative position. Labor unions can improve the wage position of their members by extracting concessions from the employers which are ultimately reflected in the prices paid by consumers in general. However, the contention of the unions that they have increased the general level of wages by forcing employers to pay a more equitable proportion of the total national income in wages is one hundred percent wrong. The general level of wages (including salaries, professional earnings, wages of the self-employed, etc.) cannot be altered by this internal struggle for advantage. The increases that have taken place in the general level of real wages have been due entirely to increased productivity. If union labor improves its relative position it does so at the expense of other groups of workers. The average “wages” of the suppliers of capital services have not been, and cannot be, affected by any arbitrary change in money wages.
The economic profession has never distinguished itself by its handling of the theory of wages. The earlier economists held to the viewpoint that wages would tend to become stabilized at a bare subsistence level. This is the doctrine of Ricardo, Malthus, and Marx, and it has a close affinity to the present-day labor union attitude. Unquestionably, the great majority of the workers believe that if all legal and extra-legal restraints were removed, employers would drive wages down to the lowest possible point-the subsistence level-in order to secure maximum profits. Modern economic thought has centered largely on the “marginal productivity” theory, which , in essence, explains the wage level as being established by the productivity of the marginal worker, the last worker the employer can afford to hire before reaching the point of unprofitability. As J. R. Hicks explains, “The theory of the determination of wages in a free market is simply a special case of the general theory of value. Wages are the price of labour; and thus, in the absence of control, they are determined like all prices, by supply and demand.”151
But those who have attempted to make a practical application of this theory have found that the situation is not as simple as Hicks would have us believe. In order to make a supply and demand theory of wages workable some additional assumptions must be made, and great difficulty has been experienced in formulating any plausible hypotheses. Dale Yoder tells us that “many assumptions (about wages) are so far-fetched, so distant from reality, the the usefulness and applicability of available theory are drastically limited,” and he sums up the existing situation in these words, “While there is no lack of hypotheses that seek to explain how wages are determined, evidence supporting such hypotheses-or contradicting them-is meager.”152
The fundamental fallacy in all present-day wage theories is that they assign the dominating role in the establishment of wage scales to the employer. In the “subsistence” theories the employer drives wages down as far as the restraints imposed upon him will permit. The leeway for discretionary action is somewhat curtailed in the marginal productivity theory, but it still sees the employer as having the whip hand over the wage situation, except to the extent that his prerogatives are forcibly limited. Here again the theorists have fallen into the error of assuming that the conditions which govern the part also apply to the whole. It can easily be demonstrated, both theoretically and statistically, that the employers have no control at all over the general level of real wages, in spite of the unquestioned ability of an individual employer to take a hand in the establishment of money wages in his own industry. This is exactly the same situation as that which prevails with respect to prices. Individual producers can modify their own sales prices to a certain limited extent, but, as was shown in Chapter 10, the general price level is determined by factors that are entirely beyond their reach.
Before we dig into the basic principles to see why the employers have no control over the general wage level, let us first take a look at what has actually happened with respect to the division of the products of our economic efforts. In this case, as is true in general, we do not have to rely on abstract theory alone in reaching our conclusions. There are ample facts available for testing all theories. Everyone knows that production has increased tremendously since the advent of the Power Age. In order to check theory against actual experience, let us see what gain each of the two claimants, the worker and the supplier of capital, has made from this great increase in the output of the economic machine. According to the subsistence theory the bulk of the gain must have accrued to the employers; that is, to the owners of the individual business enterprises. On the marginal productivity basis we should expect to find a more equal division, but the suppliers of capital should still have the advantage, since the initiative, according to the theory, rests with the employer.
Appraisal of the gains made by labor is a simple matter. All the worker wants to know is how he fares with respect to real wages: how much his buying power has been increased. On this point there is no room for misunderstanding or differences of opinion; the gain in the last hundred years or so has been enormous. Estimates compiled by various analysts indicate that real wages have increased nearly two hundred percent in this period of time. But even this does not tell the whole story. These compilations do not take fully into account the very great improvement in quality of products that has taken place simultaneously. But whether the actual gain has been two hundred percent or three hundred percent is not material in the present connection. The important point is that the wages of labor have increased drastically as a result of the increase in productivity.
Now, how did the other claimant fare? The owner of capital also has only one standard by which he judges the adequacy of the “wages” that he obtains. This is the percentage rate of return on his investment. There is a tendency in economic circles to look at the percentage of the total product going to the suppliers of capital rather than at the rate of compensation received for each dollar of investment, but this amounts to nothing more than setting up an academic abstraction in place of a practical yardstick. No worker would listen with patience to an economist who tells him that a cut in real wages is of no consequence because more workers are now employed and consequently labor still gets the same percentage of the total output. It is equally unrealistic to expect an investor who finds the return on his capital dropping from six percent to four percent to be consoled by assurance from the economist that the total amount of capital in use has doubled, and hence the suppliers of capital, as a class, are better off than they were before. The only significant item for either worker of investor is the rate of payment he received for the services that he supplies.
We do not have enough detailed information to enable determining the rate of return from all types of capital investment directly, but we do have accurate and complete data on one specific item, the interest rate, and this gives us the answer for all kinds of capital, inasmuch as all uses for capital are directly competitive. Profits, for instance, cannot get very far out of line with interest rates, because the investor has the option of lending his money or buying equities, and any maladjustment between interest and profits is promptly corrected by a diversion of the new money flow from the less profitable to the more profitable field.
Theoretically, the average rate of profit should be somewhat higher than the interest rate because of the greater risk involved in equity investment, but it is doubtful whether this margin actually exists in practice. Many economists have concluded that the average businessman puts forth his proprietorial efforts for nothing; he gets no more return on his capital than he could get by lending his money to others. “The low level of corporate profitability is a puzzle to many observers,”153 say Samuelson and Nordhaus. After analyzing the available statistics, C. Robinson reported in a book entitled Understanding Profits, that “in the American economy we have capital working for an average fee of... five to ten percent profit per dollar of investment,” and he further states that “this modest fee... tends to remain remarkably constant over a long period of time.”154 The true rate of profit in the economy as a whole is even lower, as the business statistics on which such conclusions are based are heavily weighted toward the larger and more prosperous concerns, and do not adequately reflect the situation in the multitude of small companies and individual proprietorships. Many of the owners of small enterprises actually earn little or no profit, and are in business mainly as a means of earning a living on their own terms.
So we can determine the trend of remuneration for the services of capital in general by examining the interest rate. But the stability of the interest rate throughout the last two hundred years, aside from short term fluctuations, has been one of the most consistent of all economic phenomena. All observers have noted this situation. It is apparent that the owner of capital gets no more return on his investment, no more “wages” for the services of his capital, than his predecessors did a hundred years ago. If there has been any trend at all it has been downward rather then upward. And there is no indication that the situation is changing. Samuelson and Nordhaus give us these reports:
American corporations have earned on average no more than their cost of capital over the last few decades.155
The real interest rate has been trendless over the last 85 years.156
Where does this leave all of the theories of wages which put the employer in the dominating position? The owner of capital, who, in his capacity as an employer, is supposed to have the upper hand in wage determinations, even to the extent of lowering wages to mere subsistence levels as the Marxists and many others would have us believe, gets no gain at all out of the great increase in productivity, whereas the real wages of the allegedly “exploited” worker have multiplied manyfold. Furthermore, the advent of the labor unions and the greater amount of public attention given to labor problems have not changed this situation in the least degree. The worker was getting all of the benefit of increased productivity before the unions even cut their eye teeth. As expressed by Samuelson and Nordhaus:
Once cyclical influences on labor’s share are removed, we can see no appreciable impact of unionization on the level of real wages in the United States.157
Obviously something far beyond mere “bargaining” between employer and employees determines the real wage level. We cannot conceive of a bargaining process in which one of the participants never gets anything at all. The explanation is that capital competes with capital, not with labor. The price of capital is determined by the relative availability of capital and productive employment in which it can be used. Labor does not enter into this picture, except when exhaustion of the labor supply limits the further use of capital. We frequently meet the contention that capital and labor are competing for jobs, as employers have the option of using labor-saving devices in lieu of labor, and will use more or less mechanical equipment depending on the labor price. This is another of the many economic misconceptions that arise from an inability to realize that the number of potential jobs for labor is unlimited, and the use of mechanical equipment therefore changes only the kind of work available, not the amount.
The true facts will be obvious after we take the necessary steps to eliminate unemployment, but even in these days of imperfection, intensive use of capital is always correlated with high employment and high wages, not with low employment and low wages. When labor is fully utilized, the demand for capital is at a maximum, and wages get the benefit of the increased production. When production falls, both labor and capital lack employment. There is no sound basis for considering capital a competitor of labor; it is a tool of labor, and those who supply it receive a compensation based entirely on what it is worth, as determined by competition of the most aggressive and unrestrained character.
The popular conception of market price as the fixed element out of which both labor and capital must draw their pay is entirely erroneous in application of the system as a whole. As was shown in Chapter 11, the normal market price is determined by production price, and any changes at the production end of the mechanism are promptly reflected in the goods market price. This normal market price, the price that would prevail in the absence of unbalancing forces arising from purchasing power reservoir transactions, is the sum of wages plus capital costs plus taxes. Capital costs are fixed by the competition of capital against capital. Taxes are fixed by those mysterious processes to which our legislators are addicted. Only wages have no external limitation. Consequently they take up the entire residue. Real wages are equal to the market value of the products of the economy as a whole less the fixed items of taxes and capital costs. No matter what the money wage may be, the price mechanism automatically adjusts the real wage to this unavoidable result.
Ever since this “residual claimant” theory of wages was originally formulated critics have argued that any element of cost can be considered the residue after all other charges have been satisfied, and hence wages are no more entitled to the residual status than any other cost element. Indeed, most economists accept the superficial viewpoint of the ordinary layman and consider profit as the residual share. “In most current analysis, reports Yoder, “economists are agreed that the only residual share is what is known as profit. No fixed rate of profits is imaginable, precisely because it is a possible residue. Profits may or may not appear.”158
This is the same old story of the trees obscuring the view of the forest. Yoder’s statements are correct only in application to the individual case; they are completely erroneous in application to the system as a whole. An average rate of profit that is fixed from the short term standpoint is imaginable. And it is much more than imaginable; it is an inevitable result of the way in which the economic system operates. If average profits fall below this fixed normal level, the supply of capital diminishes and its price (of which profit is one form) consequently rises. If average profits rise above the normal level, the supply of equity capital increases, and its price consequently drops back. It is rather odd that a profession which is so proud of its supply and demand theories and is inclined to apply them freely even where they have no actual relevance, should be unable to see that this is a classic supply and demand situation.
The essential point here is that, regardless of how any individual firm may fare, taxes and capital costs (including profits) as a whole are independent of productivity. Taxes are determined by what the government spends, not by what the economy produces. For the reasons that have been stated, capital costs at corresponding stages of the business cycle are practically constant decade after decade. Only wages are free to increase or decrease in response to changes in productivity. The money wages may be resistant to change, but if they fail to reflect the productivity gains or losses, the real wages are automatically adjusted to the new conditions by the goods price mechanism.
The division of the fruits of production is similar to the distribution of the assets of an estate. As wills are ordinarily written, there are some specific bequests which are fixed in amount irrespective of the actual size of the estate. These are analogous to the fixed taxes and capital costs. The remainder of the estate, after deducting these fixed items goes to the residuary legatee. Similarly, the remainder of the products of the economy, after the fixed items are satisfied, goes to the workers, the residuary legatees of the economic system.
This explains why wages get all of the benefit of improvements in productive efficiency, as the statistics clearly prove that they do. Returns on capital are still limited to the level established by competition, a level that has no relation to productive efficiency, and therefore remains constant regardless of technological advances. As productivity improves, there is a constantly increasing residue that goes to the real owners of the economic machine, the workers. When we get down to the fundamentals, we find that it is the owner of capital, not the worker, whose remuneration is driven down to a “subsistence” level by remorseless competition. Because of the complexity of the modern economic organization, the owners of capital and the managers of the productive enterprises utilizing that capital do not ordinarily realize that average profits cannot rise above the subsistence level, but they are well aware that they do not. A survey of the attitude of business people toward existing economic conditions reports that the “single biggest worry of business is the failure of profits to expand over the years”159 Arthur F. Burns expressed the same point in this manner:
Perhaps the most serious obstacle we face to a higher rate of economic growth is the persistent decline in the rate of profit during the past 10 to 12 years. Unless the rate of profit is increased, I fear that our country will not succeed in attaining the rate of growth that we would like to have and can have.160
But the business community will have to reconcile itself to the situation that now exists, and look elsewhere for growth stimulants, because a “subsistence” level of profits is inherent in the economic system.
There is actually nothing unusual or abnormal about the way in which the price of capital remains constant while the price of labor continually rises with every gain in productivity. It would, in reality, be highly abnormal if the situation were any different, as this seemingly inequitable division of the increment conforms exactly with the principles by which all prices are determined, the principles discussed in the earlier pages of this work. Price is governed by two limits. It cannot exceed value, else there would be no motive for a transaction. As a long term proposition, it cannot be less than the cost of production, or there would be no motive for undertaking production. Where the item is freely reproducible, the competition is on the selling side, and it drives the price down to the lower limit, the cost of production. Where the item is not freely reproducible, the competition is on the buying side, and it drives the price up to the upper limit, the value.
Capital is freely reproducible. Consequently, the determinant of the price of capital is the cost of production; that is, the cost of saving. The value of the services of capital (the amount that it contributes to production) has no bearing on this situation, except that it interposes a limit on the amount of capital that can be used at a given price. There is no demand for capital at all when this value is below the lowest possible price: the cost of production. The process of saving which creates capital is governed by a comparison of the benefits derived from present consumption against those accruing from future consumption. An increase in productivity enters into both sides of this comparison, and it does not alter the ratio. This means that the cost of saving (on a percentage basis), and hence the cost of production of capital, are not directly affected by changes in productive efficiency. It is possible that long-continued increases in productivity may ultimately have an indirect effect, as saving should theoretically become more attractive when present wants are more adequately met, but this factor will operate toward reducing the wage of capital, not toward increasing it.
Labor, on the other hand, is not freely reproducible. It may seem odd to talk about a limited supply of labor when unemployment is a major problem. But the significant economic figures are the amount of capital and the amount of labor per capita, and on this basis the amount of labor available is strictly limited. The price of labor, like that of any other non-reproducible item, is therefore determined by the upper limit, its value, and it is equal to the total value of production less the fixed items of capital costs and taxes.
This explains why neither legislation nor forcible action can increase the real income level of workers in general. Their income is already at the maximum level possible on the basis of the existing productive efficiency. If any gain is made by one group, it can only be at the expense of other workers. Skilled labor may gain at the expense of unskilled labor, for example, or industrial labor as a whole may gain at the expense of the farmers, teachers, or government employees, but labor cannot gain at the expense of the suppliers of capital because capital costs are established independently of other factors, and are not affected by changes in wages or other components of cost. The general level of money wages can be increased, of course, but this accomplishes nothing. It merely pushes market prices up and leaves real buying power unchanged.
Some economists have argued that labor actually gains from increased money wages in spite of the higher prices that inevitably follow, as increasing the wage component of the market price without altering the other price components results in a price rise somewhat less than the wage increase, leaving labor relatively better off.161 This is an example of the kind of unrealistic economic reasoning that distresses those who must deal with facts and not with fancies. Certainly labor would gain by increasing the wage level and leaving capital costs and taxes unchanged, if this could be done, but even the slightest attempt to come down to earth and ascertain the facts would demonstrate that wage increases necessarily involve corresponding increases in the other cost elements. When prices go up government salaries have to be increased, and government purchases in the markets require larger expenditures. Taxes rise accordingly. Similarly, a larger amount of money capital is required to do the same amount of work, and since the rate of return on capital remains essentially constant, the total cost of capital services per unit of output increases.
It is true that there is a certain time lag in economic processes, and whenever a change is made in any component of the system someone usually gains a temporary advantage until the compensatory mechanisms have time to operate and restore the equilibrium. Theoretically it would be possible for labor to gain such a temporary advantage from an arbitrary increase in the general wage level during the period of adjustment, but in actual practice it has been observed that prices tend to respond very quickly to any upward influence, even to the extent of anticipating the wage increases in many instances. Thus there is no assurance that even this transitory gain would materialize.
Much of the present controversy over wage rates revolves around the question as to what is a “fair” division between the wages of labor and the earnings on capital, and we find books with titles such as The Just Wage162 and Equitable 163 which are devoted to exploring the issue as to what the wage “should be.” Some years ago George Meany stated the labor union position in these words, “The unions want a fair share for the workers who make their contributions to the economic system, and... unions are going to continue to seek a fair share through every legal method, including strikes when necessary.”164 Even though this statement implies that the workers are not getting a “fair share,” the use of such an expression tacitly recognizes that the suppliers of capital are entitled to participate in the gains. As expressed by Wilhelm Röpke, “Is it not right that productivity increases should also benefit the firm... by higher profits in proportion to its current and future capital?”165
From the standpoint of equity, this doctrine of a fair division seems very reasonable, but here again we are confronted with the fact that economics is governed by cold, hard realities, not by sentiment. Regardless of how reasonable it may be for the owners of business enterprises to participate in the fruits of increased production to which they have contributed very materially, they cannot do so under any competitive economic system operating on an individual enterprise basis. These systems do not give workers in general a “fair share” of the benefits of increased productivity; they give these workers all of the benefits.
The “wage” of capital, on the other hand, is fixed in total by considerations which are independent of productivity. The profits of an individual business enterprise at any particular stage of the business cycle are determined by relative productive efficiency, not by any absolute standard. The enterprise that outstrips its competitors earns good profits even if the general level of productivity in that industry is miserably low; the one that lags behind in a close race earns little or nothing even though it may be very efficient when judged by normal standards. Whether this is equitable or inequitable is beside the point; this is the way a competitive system operates.
Because business profits are governed by competition, any change in costs that applies equally to all competitors has no effect on profits. Higher wages or higher taxes simply result in higher prices, and if all competitors are subject to the same conditions each is able to recapture his additional costs out of the higher price structure. If the additional costs fall more heavily on one firm, the competitive position of this firm is weakened, and some of its profits are transferred to others. It may even be forced out of business entirely.
To sum up the situation, we find that the relative position of the worker and the owner of capital with respect to the economic system as a whole is just the reverse of their positions in the individual enterprise. In the business organization the owner pays all of the wages and other costs of production, and retains the residue as his compensation for the use of the equity capital. But while individual profits are variable, average profits are fixed by economic forces beyond the control of either the workers or the employers. Consequently it is the worker who occupies the status of “owner” of the economy as a whole, and who receives the residue over and above the fixed expenses. In effect, the workers pay the capital costs and the taxes and retain all of the residue as compensation for their work.
This finding that the wage earner receives the entire residue does not mean that the economists’ marginal utility approach to the wage question must be abandoned. The “marginal” concept has a bearing on the wage situation, but it does not play the role that economic theory has assigned to it. Its real function is very similar to that of supply and demand in the determination of the market price. As pointed out in Chapter 10, what supply and demand actually do is to determine the relative prices of different goods in monetary terms. The average level of real prices then depends on the value of money, which is determined by factors that are prior to, and independent of, the market transactions. Similarly, a determination of marginal wages gives us only relative values. The total amount of real wages is the value of the products less the fixed costs, as indicated in the preceding pages. That total is divided in proportion to the relative wage levels as determined by marginal considerations.
Both the marginal theory of wage determination and the earlier “subsistence” theory, which contends that wages are eventually driven down to a bare subsistence level by competition from the unemployed, lead to the conclusion that there is a “surplus value”-a difference between the true value of the workers’ productive efforts and the wages paid. The contention of the theorists is that the system diverts this “surplus” from the workers, to whom it rightfully belongs, to the owners of capital. This is the basis for Karl Marx’ claim that the workers are “exploited” under what is mistakenly called the “capitalistic” economic system.
Economic experience has never supported this assertion. Socialistic economies do not pay higher wages. On the contrary, their inability to reach the level of real earnings that prevails in the nations relying on private enterprise is one of their most serious and embarrassing shortcomings. Now our analysis shows that the concept of a “surplus value” has no theoretical justification either.
The acceptance that socialistic economies have experienced in some countries-Sweden, for example-has not been due to efficient performance of the economies but to the general public approval of what has come to be known as the “welfare state.” However, this is the result of a misunderstanding. As will be brought out in the concluding chapters of this work, the measures that are included in the welfare category are not peculiar to any economic system. They are features of the arrangements that are made for division of the proceeds of the economy, and they can be applied to the proceeds of any economic system, including those that are customarily called “capitalistic.”
The wage principles developed in the preceding pages, like many of those stated earlier, may seem incredible to those who have been thinking along much different lines, but they can easily be verified statistically. We may express them as follows:
PRINCIPLE XVI:The cost of the services of capital is fixed by competitive conditions, independently of productivity.
PRINCIPLE XVII:Average real wages are determined by productivity, and are equal to total production per worker less the items of cost that are determined independently of productivity: taxes and capital costs.
These principles were recognized, at least in a general way, in the early days of economics in America, when scientists such as General Francis A. Walker and Simon Newcomb were attempting to apply scientific methods and practices to the study of economics. General Walker is commonly credited with originating the “residual claimant” theory of wages, and it is significant that his systematic, unbiased scientific analysis of the problem in the middle of the 19th century arrived at the same conclusion as the systematic, unbiased scientific analysis carried out in this present work in the middle of the 20th century. But the triumph of the sociological approach to economics over the scientific approach halted the progress in the scientific direction.
The sociologically oriented economists will not accept Principle XVII because it interferes with what they want to do, and unlike scientists, they are unwilling to admit that they are limited by the realities. The vast gulf between these two professional points of view is well illustrated by Dale Yoder’s comment, in his textbook on labor economics, that the residual claimant explanation of wage determination was “irritating to those who sought to raise levels of wages.”166 Can anyone visualize scientists being “irritated” by the law of Conservation of Energy and refusing to accept it because it exposes the futility of the many attempts that are being made to create energy out of nothing: a dream that was once as dear to the hearts of many people as the raising of wages at the expense of the employers is to their present-day counterparts? These crusaders for a “fair” wage refuse to accept the residual claimant theory, not because of any conflict with the known facts of experience, nor because they have a plausible alternative explanation, but simply because, in their opinion, this is not the way in which wages ought to be determined. As Yoder explains (with reference to all wage “laws” which assert that the compensation for labor is fixed by economic forces), “In the light of these laws, there was little anyone could do to improve the status of wage earners-unions gained only at the expense of other workers, wages could be raised in one industry only at the expense of all others, etc.167
But this is just exactly how matters stand. These is little that anyone can do to improve the status of wage earners in general by political action or coercion of employers. The only way to make any significant improvement in their economic status is to increase their output of goods by keeping them employed, providing them with more efficient tools and equipment, and devising more and better ways of increasing their productivity. Labor unions do gain higher wages only at the expense of other workers, wages cannot be raised in any one industry except at the expense of all others, and so on, just as Walker and the other early adherents of the residual claimant theory contended. The economists’ refusal to recognize the facts because they do not like them does not change the situation in the least. All that it accomplishes is to confuse the issues and thus prevent the progress that could be made if economic decisions were made on the basis of sound and valid principles rather than on the strength of emotional arguments.
It is quite ironic that the economic profession, which has been so ready to embrace the many fallacies that are included among the economic ideas of J. M. Keynes, even such absurdities as his contention that we can enrich ourselves by doing useless work, has turned a deaf ear to his sound appraisal of the wage situation, an appraisal that is fully in accord with the findings of this work. Keynes’ words, quoted earlier, are worth repeating: “the struggle about money-wages primarily affects the distribution of the aggregate real wage between different labour-groups, and not its average amount per unit of employment which depends... on a different set of forces.”96
The rejection of the findings of Walker and his scientific contemporaries by the sociologically-oriented economists who have dominated the economic profession in later years has cost the nation dearly, but we can prevent further losses of this kind by adopting a policy of basing economic actions on solid facts and sound theory rather than on emotional grounds. When the economists, the governmental authorities, and the nation as a whole finally arrive at a realization that they must take economic laws and principles just as they are, whether they approve or disapprove of them, as they know they must do in the case of physical laws and principles, the door will be opened to the solution of most of our major economic problems.