May. 17th, 2017

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Labour is right—Karl Marx has a lot to teach today’s politicians
[May 11th 2017 | via The Economist]

The shadow chancellor's comment provoked scorn. Yet Marx becomes more relevant by the day

AN UNOFFICIAL rule of British elections holds that you don’t mention big thinkers. On May 7th John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, broke this rule by mentioning not just any old big thinker but Karl Marx. “I believe there’s a lot to learn from reading ‘Capital’,” he declared. The next day Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, described Marx as “a great economist”.

This produced jubilation on the right. The Daily Telegraph dismissed Messrs McDonnell and Corbyn as “the Marx brothers”. The Daily Mail reminded its readers of the murderous history of communism. David Gauke, a Conservative minister, warned that “Labour’s Marxist leadership” was planning to turn Britain into a “hard-left experiment”. He added for good measure that Marx’s thinking is “nonsensical”.

Yet Mr McDonnell is right: there is an enormous amount to learn from Marx. Indeed, much of what Marx said seems to become more relevant by the day. The essence of his argument is that the capitalist class consists not of wealth creators but of rent seekers—people who are skilled at expropriating other people’s work and presenting it as their own. Marx was blind to the importance of entrepreneurs in creating something from nothing. He ignored the role of managers in improving productivity. But a glance at British business confirms that there is a lot of rent seeking going on. In 1980 the bosses of the 100 biggest listed firms earned 25 times more than a typical employee. In 2016 they earned 130 times more. Their swollen salaries come with fat pensions, private health-care and golden hellos and goodbyes.

The justification for this bonanza is that you get what you pay for: companies claim they hire chief executives on the open market and pay them according to their performance. But the evidence is brutal. Most CEOs are company men, who work their way up through the ranks, rather than free agents. In 2000-08 the FTSE all-share index fell by 30% but the pay for the bosses running those firms rose 80%. J.K. Galbraith once said that “the salary of the chief executive officer of the large corporation is not market reward for achievement. It is frequently in the nature of a warm personal gesture by the individual to himself.” Corporate Britain is more subtle: CEOs sit on each other’s boards and engage in an elaborate exchange of such gestures.

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