Social Reproduction

In my series discussing capitalism and socialism, I want to discuss another Marxist idea: the social reproduction of labor.  Basically it refers to a collection of social activities needed to maintain a labor pool.  An introductory article (suggested by Coyote) has a good description of how social reproduction occurs:

1. By activities that regenerate the worker outside the production process and allow her to return to it. These include, among a host of others, food, a bed to sleep in, but also care in psychical ways that keep a person whole.

2. By activities that maintain and regenerate non-workers outside the production process–i.e. those who are future or past workers, such as children, adults out of the workforce for whatever reason, be it old age, disability or unemployment.

3. By reproducing fresh workers, meaning childbirth.

It may be noted that social reproduction is essentially unpaid labor, and is disproportionately performed by women.  Thus, social reproduction theory draws a connection between Marxist and feminist theory.

However, I would fault the introductory article for failing to offer any good explanatory narrative.  Why is social reproduction unpaid, as compared to more “ordinary” labor being merely underpaid?  “Capitalism”, “neoliberalism”, and “sexism” don’t cut it as explanations.  So in this post, I’m going to offer a basic explanatory narrative, based on externalized costs.

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Conjugate variables, in thermodynamics and elsewhere

When I wrote an explanation of cap and trade, I had a strong temptation to make a physics analogy, to an idea in thermodynamics. The trouble is nobody would understand the analogy, and I would be obliged to explain the physics instead of the economics. Well I’d still like to explain the physics, but in a separate article.

There are certain thermodynamic quantities that are considered to be paired with one another. For example, pressure and volume, or temperature and entropy. These pairs are called thermodynamic conjugate variables.

The concept of conjugate variables can be challenging for physics students to understand because the examples we use are unintuitive. The connection between pressure and volume is unclear, and most people don’t wholly understand what temperature or entropy even are. Therefore, I’d like to use a more down-to-earth example.

So, let’s consider a pool of water. The pool is described by two conjugate variables: the volume of water, and the height of the water.
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Cap and trade

In my series discussing capitalism and socialism, a commenter said that both frameworks have problems with externalized costs.  According to the internet, “Externalized costs are costs generated by producers but carried by society as a whole.”  For example, pollution.

I want to discuss externalized costs through the lens of a specific concrete example: cap and trade policies in California.  I choose this example because I have a friend willing to explain it to me because I live in California and know all about it.

Generally speaking, cap and trade is a policy to reduce carbon emissions (or greenhouse gasses).  The government auctions off “allowances” that give companies permission to produce a certain amount of carbon emissions.  There are a fixed number of allowances available (that’s the “cap” part), and further carbon emissions are restricted.  The companies are free to buy and sell the allowances at prices of their own choosing (that’s the “trade” part).  The number of allowances decrease over time in order to meet the government’s pollution reduction goals.

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Exploitation of labor, part 2

This article is part of a series discussing capitalism and socialism.  Remember, the point isn’t to conclude that socialism or capitalism is good or bad.  The point is to discuss which aspects are good or bad, and why.  Don’t treat me as an authority, tell me how wrong I am, discuss.

Last time, I introduced the idea that labor has a certain maintenance cost, and creates a certain amount of value.  The “surplus” is the difference between the value output and maintenance cost.  In the discussion, we agreed that it’s difficult to define the productivity of each worker.  Usually, many workers are cooperating to make the final product, and you may even have workers who are there to improve the efficiency of other workers.

There are two responses to this.  One response is, even if we can’t define it on an individual basis, we can look at worker productivity and worker pay on a macro scale, and see that workers are getting paid less and less of the surplus.

Another response, is a question.  In the current capitalist system, how do we evaluate worker productivity for the purposes of determining their wages?  The answer lies in the idea of marginal productivity.

A graph whose axes are "number of workers" and "wages". The graph has two curves, labeled "marginal cost" and "marginal revenue". The intersection of the two curves determines the equilibrium wage and workforce size. Two regions of the graph are labeled the employer surplus and worker surplus.

Image mine. Use with permission.

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Exploitation of labor

When asked about my economic politics, I say I’m “socialist, kinda”. I owe a lot of that to listening to The Barefoot Bum over many years talking directly about how economic systems work, and the problems with capitalism. By comparison, I find a lot of other socialist arguments on the internet unsatisfying. It’s all “overthrow capitalism” and “seize the memes of production”, and I wish we could talk about specifics more often.

So, I’d like to lead a discussion about the problems with capitalism, much like what I did with health insurance years ago. Don’t treat me as an authority, tell me how wrong I am, discuss.

My first subject of discussion, is exploitation of labor. This is a Marxist concept, but I’m not interested in exploring what exactly Marx did or did not believe. I’m interested in exploring (and improving upon) the concept as I understand it. So here goes:

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Weird accounting

Something I now feel comfortable venting about, now that my PhD is over a year behind me, is their timekeeping practices.

At some point in the middle of my PhD, they started requiring that we record hours.  I (and other students) were pissed off about this, because we weren’t being paid by the hour, we were on fixed salaries.  Being salaried has the disadvantage that your employer pressures you to work long hours, because they know they don’t have to pay you overtime.  Being paid by the hour is better, but has the disadvantage that you have to record hours.  By making us record hours, while keeping us on fixed salaries, we were getting the worst of both worlds.

Once we actually started recording hours, it was even more ridiculous than we initially thought.  It was not possible to record accurate hours–the maximum number of hours I could record was about 20 hours per week.  This was supposedly because I had a “50% appointment”, meaning that half of my time was devoted to my position as a research assistant, and the other half devoted to being a student.  Which was not accurate by the way.  I wasn’t taking any more classes at this point.

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Why video games are so flammable

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2013.  I was reminded of this post because I recently wrote about a queer theory paper about video game economics.  Wow, some of my references are quite dated!  And this predates gamergate!  Also, LOL at “I don’t intend to make a habit out of discussing economics”.

With Black Friday upon us, the flame wars over next-gen gaming consoles have really been heating up.  Which will win: the Wii U, XBox One, or PlayStation 4?  No one truly knows, but gamers everywhere agree that everyone else is wrong and should feel bad about being so stupid.

While I don’t intend to make a habit out of discussing economics, I do think that video game flame wars can be understood within economics.  The problem is twofold:

  1. There is limited space for video games and video game consoles, and everyone knows it.
  2. Video games are in a state of monopolistic competition.

Video game producers are most efficient when they make fewer, larger games, for many reasons.  Developing a game is a one-time cost, while actually manufacturing the game is cheap.  Selling more copies of a game is not a matter of paying for more manufacture, but paying for better advertisement and development so that more people want to play.1  Note that it’s much easier to advertise one big game than to advertise many little ones.  The main reason to have more smaller games is to better cater to different tastes (e.g. see the indie game industry).

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