Thursday, June 18, 2015

Let's talk about... abolishing the wages system

Does that phrase, abolition of the wages system, bring to mind "abolition of the law of gravity" or "proposals for the speedy extinction of evil and misery"? This is unfortunate and misleading because unlike gravity, evil and misery, the wages system is a relatively recent innovation. That is not to say that wages were unheard of before they became systematic. Only that they weren't the principal means of subsistence for a large proportion of the population until recent centuries.

The telegraphic version of my argument against the wages system is that it is based on a false accounting analogy, just as national income accounts are based on a false accounting analogy.

The analog is the business enterprise with its system of double-entry bookkeeping. For the profit-seeking firm, monetary receipts and expenditures transit a boundary that corresponds, by definition, with the legal entity of the firm. For the individual employee and for the nation, there is no such obvious correspondence between exchange transactions and welfare. In both cases, the accounting analogy ignores the contribution to public and private welfare of non-market work and environmental amenities and effectively double counts remedial costs -- such as medical expenses and commuting costs -- by what Hueting calls "asymmetric entering": counting expenditures to restore a loss as income with no offsetting entry for the loss.

It turns out that these accounting anomalies are advantageous for some parties in the transactions. That is the "beauty" of capitalist production -- beautiful from the perspective of the capitalist. As Joan Martinez-Alier paraphrases K.W. Kapp, negative social and environmental externalities "are not market failures, they are cost-shifting successes." There is nothing inevitable, universal or eternal in the use of an inappropriate accounting analogy. It is not gravity.