Re: [OPE-L] That hissing? It's the sound of bubblenomics deflating

From: Paul Cockshott (wpc@DCS.GLA.AC.UK)
Date: Tue Oct 02 2007 - 04:59:31 EDT

I agree that the information structures that constitute fiancial records
have social power, but  any complex system of social relations has to be
embodied in data structures. Think of land ownership. It is nothing
without either boundary stones or a land registry. Thus social relations
are codified in and depend upon data structures.

But I think you are comparing apples to oranges when you try to
aggregate financial records with real capital, for several reasons:

1. In commodity exchange a conservation law holds, the sum of embodied
labour/value does not rise in exchanges.
2. In financial transactions a conservation law still applies but it is
a slightly different one. The conservation law here is that the net
asset/liability position does not change when a debt is created,
however, the sum of absolute values involved does rise ( ie the L1 norm
) changes. This is at the hart of the ability of the financial system to
create new money. 
3. There is a also a simple violation of conservative exchange in the
form of interest payments.

The stock of real capital can only be increased by labour being expended
and embodied in a material product, the L1 norm of financial assets can
be increased by a simple information processing operation. The labour
required to process a new loan of 100,000 euro is the same as required
to process a loan of 200,000 euro, there is thus no relationship between
the labour required to process the information and the magnitude of the
financial transaction. This is the basic reason why the L1 norm can rise
so much relative to real capital.

I am not sure what you mean when you say " As I see it, the modern
"problem" of economic growth is NOT the lack of investment capital, but
a SUPER-ABUNDANCE of capital, often owned by people who, globally
speaking, do not use much of it to invest in real production that
creates additional jobs or expands that production. "

What do you mean by 'capital' in this sense.

-----Original Message-----
From: OPE-L [mailto:OPE-L@SUS.CSUCHICO.EDU] On Behalf Of Jurriaan
Sent: 01 October 2007 22:52
Subject: [OPE-L] That hissing? It's the sound of bubblenomics deflating


I realise that assets less liabilities necessarily equals zero in a
balance sheet, since the total liabilities state the funds applied for
the investment in the total assets (source of funds as against use of
However, two things: (1) the liabilities include the equity owned in the
enterprise (2) more importantly, the assets or alternatively the
liabilities effectively constitute a legally enforcable claim to a
revenue stream, which is the important thing from the point of view of
understanding the accumulation process as a whole. This revenue stream
does not sum to zero, it constitutes in aggregate a net positive income,
as is partly acknowledged in conventional national accounts.

I think Marx was well aware of all that, it is just that he believed
that the conventional double-entry bookkeeping did not show the real
economic and social relationships involved (which he proceeded to
expound using a value analysis that is at the roots of all accounting
and all price calculations).
Consequently, if you really wanted to understand capital accumulation,
you needed a different set of concepts, and a different procedure of
grossing and netting stocks and flows. Moreover, Marx's focus was on the
capitalist mode of production as a unity of the production and
circulation, viewed as a process in perpetual motion.

I am not sure if I fully agree that financial assets are "not values but
information structures, sequences of records held on the hard disks of
the banking system".

It is certainly true that according to Marx, only the products of human
labour have value in bourgeois society, but this already suggests an
ambiguity, insofar as financial services can also be labour-services
sold as a "financial product" (sold as a commodity, with a money-price
that may be totally unrelated to the actual labour-time it takes to
produce this "financial product" - we might however in principle be able
to split out the fees or salaries charged for providing this service;
and indeed in UNSNA-type product accounts, a portion of the positive net
income of banks shows up as a "nominal bank charge" thought to
constitute the value added of the banking industry). There are very few
good value-analyses of the peculiarities of commodified services as
contrasted with tangible goods.

Furthermore, financial assets, as said, constitute legally enforcable
claims to a revenue stream, i.e. a source of net income which depends on
established property rights enforced by the state. This implies, I would
say, that we are dealing with more than a mere "information structure"
as a sort of technical instrument, we are dealing with a social power
claiming new and existing wealth purely through a capitalisation of
asset ownership.

The tenor of your criticism seems to be that I am basically "comparing
apples and pears". In a sense you are quite correct about that. But I
was thinking of capital accumulation, and tried to find a measure of the
broad proportions of capital tied up in physical assets versus capital
tied up in financial assets, the point being that the majority of each
of these assets generate a positive revenue stream, whether in the form
of profit, rent, interest, capital gains, tax, seignorage or fees etc.
Of course, in striking this ratio, I must be double-counting to a
significant extent, insofar as the physical asset can give rise to a
tradeable financial claim to that asset (and/or the income derived from
it). A physical asset may be owned by a legal entity which is owned by
another entity, which is owned by another entity which trades in that
type of entity on the basis that it generates a revenue stream, and so
forth and so on.

Be that as it may, an astonishing quantity of world society's capital
these days is tied up in a financial circuit that is semi-autonomous
from real production, yet this capital provides a claim to a significant
portion of the output of that production. That is what I intended to
highlight with another statistic, contrasting that with myopic views of
the scope of capital accumulation, but I admit there are also better
ways to do it. The IMF figure is for total "tradeable US financial
assets" and not total US financial assets. The overall implication is
that a greater proportion of the mass of surplus-value is appropriated
in the form of interest, rent, capital gains of various types, and fees,
which in turn has other sorts of implications I cannot delve into now.

As I see it, the modern "problem" of economic growth is NOT the lack of
investment capital, but a SUPER-ABUNDANCE of capital, often owned by
people who, globally speaking, do not use much of it to invest in real
production that creates additional jobs or expands that production. The
main reasons for this, briefly, seem to be (1) considerations of
comparative risk, (2) stagnating, declining or sluggishly growing real
wages plus gigantic income inequalities, and thus a very severe
maldistribution of income from the point of view of the monetarily
effective demand necessary for cumulative economic growth (3) perhaps
most importantly, higher returns from placements in activities or assets
other than real production.

At least four additional factors that many authors note are (4) a modern
emphasis on gaining the maximum profit in the short-term, whereas
cumulative economic growth requires long-term financial commitments (in
third world countries, the focus is often especially on the problems of
developing the country's social and physical infrastructure). Part of
the "risk problem" of large-scale, long-term investments is that there
are very few things you can invest in these days other than government
bonds for which you can guarantee that they will not fluctuate
significantly in value through time, not in the least because currencies
can fluctuate strongly according to speculative cross-border flows. (5)
the fact that the physical essentials necessary to sustain the life of
the world population at its present level or a slightly higher level can
actually be produced by a smaller and smaller fraction of the world's
growing workforce. (6) a new ideological emphasis on ecological
pessimism, according to which "we all" ought to make do with less
material wealth for the sake of the health of the planet, which
paradoxically can make the case for developing old and new industries
benefiting poor people a very RADICAL stance. (7) Problems that have to
do with establishing and maintaining effective management and effective
social organisation of enterprises, involving among other things
increased job mobility, criminal or grey transactions, and a lack of
consensual norms and values (it becomes more difficult for elites to
"unite" the people for a specific purpose, whether politically or
managerially, resulting in recurrent leadership crises or continual

In themselves, these kinds of observations are not spectacular news,
they are only of new interest in the context of an analysis which
comprehensively integrates a mass of different trends, giving them their
appropriate place in a durable theory of the development of modern
society and what the human meaning of that is, qualitatively and
quantitatively, without venting new myths or anxieties or vulgar pomo

The national accounting system now in use was developed in the 1930s and
finalised in the 1950s, with only relatively small conceptual
modifications since then. But in half a century, the very ways of doing
business have changed enormously and therefore some macro-economic
categories which might have seemed perfectly valid and exhaustive in
scope back then, become highly questionable now. In my previous posts on
various lists I have tried to illustrate this in some more depth with
specific examples, i.e. how the official aggregates and classifications
cited in the media now provide a significantly distorted picture of what
really is happening in terms of wealth-creation, income distribution and
capital accumulation. I am not saying the aggregates are completely
useless, but that they have to be read with many qualifications
nowadays. From the point of view of my own analysis, I frankly do not
understand why many Marxists persist in taking these categories of a
past epoch for granted, rather than criticising them scientifically and
devising new alternative measures (some authors including yourself
however do do this).

I have not elaborated all this and more in a book which tells a
substantive story about what I learnt from the 1980s onwards, because my
career as social scientist failed due to love problems, some mistaken
decision-making or indecision etc. You simply have to be able to
patiently work through a very large mass of data and literature to make
all the arguments exact, effective, complete, and irrefutable, and
meanwhile you have to make an independent living somehow, whatever your
mental state might happen to be, or however harassed you might feel at
times. I have also worked through many thousands of documents in the
last 8 years but that is more in the context of my job as
archivist/documentalist, and often quite unrelated to my social
scientific inquiries which I  had intended to pursue further. You get
challenged to see if you know anything, and you write a bit in your
spare time to say what you think and argue it out, but you don't get any
big job done. Well, maybe when I retire, I cannot really say now how my
life might pan out yet. And if you wonder about whether your inquiries
are worthwhile anyway, you don't get very far either.

My last posts were rather too negative I think, and seen as I have just
started a new job, I cannot post a lot of new stuff now anyway. However,
like Ajit I went on holiday to shake off some fatigue (for a week in
Sicily, in my case) and I attach two of my snapshots which I consider
among my best on this trip (the highest point in the trip, was going to
the top of the Etna volcano).


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