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Interviews Post-Capitalist Vision

Robin Hahnel Interview on Participatory Economics – Part 3 – Worker Councils, Efficiency, Labour Cost, Automation

Editor’s note: discussion topics include what production targets for individual production units benefit society as a whole the most in a Participatory Economy (parecon), how to calculate the cost of labour in parecon, how to determine pay for workers in parecon, the role of automation in parecon, unemployment in planned economies vs. market economies, and whether parecon is incentive compatible with efficient use of automation.

[After the Oligarchy] Hello everybody, this is After the Oligarchy. Today I’m speaking with Professor Robin Hahnel.

Robin Hahnel is a professor of economics in the United States, co-founder with Michael Albert of the post-capitalist model known as Participatory Economics (Parecon), and author of many books.

Today’s conversation is in association with meta: the Centre for Post-capitalist Civilization. This is the first in a series of interviews with Professor Hahnel about Participatory Economics, and in particular his latest book Democratic Economic Planning published in 2021. If you haven’t watched the first interview check out Part A and Part B here.

It’s an advanced discussion of the model proposed in that book so I recommend you familiarize yourself with participatory economics to understand what we’re talking about. You can do that by visiting participatoryeconomy.org. You can also read Of the People, By the People for a concise introduction to parecon.

The discussion will also continue on the forum of participatoryeconomy.org.

Robin Hahnel thank you very much for joining me.

[Robin Hahnel] Great to be with you. [Music]

[ATO] We were talking about worker self-management there at length, and there’s been a lot of talk of social cost and social benefit, and production proposals, and how the social interest is factored into the formulation and revision of production of proposals through this calculation of social benefit and social cost.

So, let’s dive into that with this question, and the question is: you made the point that if a workers council makes a proposal, as long as the social benefit that is produced by that proposal, and calculated, is at least equal to the social cost of that proposal – for the labour, the different resources, the capital goods, the pollution it generates, and so on – if those are at least equal, at parity, then at least people are no worse off because of it, right? And so the question is: are worker councils always aiming for social benefit divided by social costs is equal to one (SB/SC = 1)? Surely there is no progress unless the social benefit is greater than the social cost, in the long run, say. Would it not be desirable if the aim was for the social benefit to be much greater than the social cost? Representing getting much more out of much less. And if so, what will drive worker councils to achieve this? So it’s two questions there.

[RH] My answer is going to be very economics-y, okay?

[ATO] Sure.

[RH] And when you sent me these questions in advance, and when I looked at this series of questions, I realized ‘oh my god’.

When we teach economics classes and we teach ‘well, how would a profit-maximizing firm decide whether to use more of some input?’, what we say is, well, if when we use more of the input the increase in revenues is higher than the increase in costs, then the firm will keep doing it. And we come up with this rule which basically says a profit-maximizing firm is going to keep using every input right up to the point where the last unit that it used generated an increase in revenue that was exactly equal to the increase in cost.

And then the students will eventually ask me – some bright student in the class at some point will raise their hand and say – ‘well then why did the firm use that last unit?’. And my answer is we don’t really care if it used the last unit. It’s just a little thought experiment so that we can show that it wants to use every unit that generates a little more in revenues than it does in cost. It doesn’t want to use any units that would increase cost more than revenues.

And what you’re asking me is: that marginal unit should I use it or not? And what I’m saying is that’s not the point. So, part of my answer to your question is: when we say that we want workers councils to keep doing what they’re doing right up to the point where the social benefits equal to social costs, it is the same kind of reasoning. What if the social benefits were still greater than the social costs of doing something? Well then we should want that council to keep doing more of it. Whether it does the last little bit isn’t really the point.

Now here’s the second place where things are going to get a little economics-y. One of my criticisms of the usual teaching of microeconomic theory about capitalism is that that’s actually not what profit-maximizing firms do.

[ATO] Yes, yes, yes, yes.

[RH] And they don’t do that because if you keep buying units all the way up to the point where the increase in revenues that comes from it is no bigger than the increase in cost, you haven’t earned any profit on that last unit. And what profit-maximizing firms actually do is they basically have an expected rate of profit. So they’re not going to keep using inputs unless … They’re going to stop whenever the increase in revenues is not only as large as the increase in cost but it’s a little bit more. That gives them that standard rate of profit that they’re insisting on.

And this has been one of the things I’ve always loved about Sraffian economic theory compared to mainstream neoclassical economic theory. Sraffian economic theory basically says: look, in economies there’s a going rate of profit, and that’s rather arbitrary; when the workers’ bargaining power is high, the standard rate of profit will be low; when capitalist bargaining power is high, the standard rate of profit will be high; but there will be some standard rate of profit and firms take that into account.

And so, in a sense, you’re also asking me that. And the answer is again going to be a little economics-y and complicated.