Friday, March 27, 2015

Capital versus labor: "No contest"

Photograph by Max Aguilera-Hellweg

John Lanchester in the London Review of Books (The Robots Are Coming):

...Imagine an economy in which the 0.1 per cent own the machines, the rest of the 1 per cent manage their operation, and the 99 per cent either do the remaining scraps of unautomatable work, or are unemployed. That is the world implied by developments in productivity and automation. It is Pikettyworld, in which capital is increasingly triumphant over labour. 

We get a glimpse of it in those quarterly numbers from Apple, about which my robot colleague wrote so evocatively. Apple’s quarter was the most profitable of any company in history: $74.6 billion in turnover, and $18 billion in profit. Tim Cook, the boss of Apple, said that these numbers are ‘hard to comprehend’. He’s right: it’s hard to process the fact that the company sold 34,000 iPhones every hour for three months. Bravo, though we should think about the trends implied in those figures. 

For the sake of argument, say that Apple’s achievement is annualised, so their whole year is as much of an improvement on the one before as that quarter was. That would give them $88.9 billion in profits. 

In 1960, the most profitable company in the world’s biggest economy was General Motors. In today’s money, GM made $7.6 billion that year. It also employed 600,000 people. Today’s most profitable company employs 92,600. So where 600,000 workers would once generate $7.6 billion in profit, now 92,600 generate $89.9 billion, an improvement in profitability per worker of 76.65 times. Remember, this is pure profit for the company’s owners, after all workers have been paid. 

Capital isn’t just winning against labour: there’s no contest. If it were a boxing match, the referee would stop the fight...

Speaking of capitalism, Michael Lewis updates "Flash Boys" in Vanity Fair.



At 11:30 AM, Blogger Mark Kaepplein said...

Fools are paying crazy prices. Of course Apple is making record profits when people will pay laptop prices for a cell phone. Well, not Apple laptop prices, as those are about twice what others cost. This is a pricing bubble that will eventually end. Until then, enjoy it while you can Apple.

At 5:09 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

But the automation problem will remain: fewer workers are needed to generate large profits for corporations.


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