Thursday, April 12, 2012

My final input re: Paul Holmes

The saga re: Paul Holmes' inflammatory Waitangi Day column is ongoing, but coming to a head. The editor of the Weekend Herald, David Hastings, responded to my complaint to the Press Council (after two complaints to his paper), and I was given an opportunity to respond. What I wrote is below. The Press Council will judge the case on the 7th of May. If they uphold the complaint, they'll forcing the Herald to retract the piece and apologise, but, more importantly, signalling that this type of thing isn't on. The damage has been done now, but if the Council intervenes here an important precedent will be set.

I am sad to say that Mr Hasting’s response to my complaint is shallow and inattentive. His main line of response is that I am taking Paul Holmes’s words out of context. His claim that when in context Holmes’s claims aren’t inflammatory is simply a bare assertion. In contrast, in the original complaint I discussed at length why the context does not make Holmes’s claims any better, and in fact makes it worse. Mr Hastings has simply ignored this. Nor could he make a convincing reply. The most striking element here is the fact that Holmes doesn't make a single claim about the protestors in particular, and a large number of claims about Māori without qualification.

There is the one time he mentions the "loony Maori fringe" (it is worth noting that it isn't obvious whether this is meant to be a fringe of Māori society, or that Māori are supposed to be a loony fringe of New Zealand as a whole—many of those who commented on the piece took the latter, discriminatory reading). But the three times Holmes says something about what the protest consists in, his characterisation aims at Māoridom as a whole: firstly, when describing the protest it is "irrational Maori ghastliness with spitting, smugness, self-righteousness and the usual neurotic Maori politics" (note the lack of qualification); secondly, when describing what they should instead be concentrating on is the litany of social ills that affect Māori (pointedly, making no mention of the content of the actual protest); thirdly, when describing the desired effects of the protest he introduces it with "if Maori want..." (again, without qualification). At no point does Holmes say how the protesters are to be seen as a single, distinct part of Māoridom, whereas he frequently suggests that the protest represents Māori without qualification.

Mr Hastings has challenged my reading of the third point listed above. He says that Holmes is "saying that if mainstream Maori support the extremists the day will be dominated by the antics and agendas of the extremists that he finds so abhorrent." But this is simply a nonsense reading. Holmes says nothing here about the relationship between the protesters and Māori as a whole. There is only the mention of "Maori", not of the influence of one section of Māori on another. There are simply no grounds for concluding what Mr Hastings does, and his reading must be dismissed.

The above is just one of the occasions where Mr Hastings accuses me of making unjustified inferences. I have no doubt he employed this strategy against the other complaints as well. But this retort is entirely mistaken. There are two features of inferences in natural language to consider here: the logical and pragmatic features. On both of these aspects, Mr Hastings's readings are nonsense.

Logically, an inference like 'if X, Y' or 'Y, because X' (note the different positions of X and Y) provides sufficient conditions: the truth of the antecedent X is supposed to make the consequent Y inevitably true. Holmes, in the above-mentioned example, says that if Māori want Waitangi Day for themselves, we should let them defraud Pākehā. I conclude from this that Holmes is saying that Māori want to defraud Pākehā. That is incontrovertible: Māori wanting to protest as they did is sufficient for us letting Māori get what they want and defraud Pākehā, Holmes asserts, which entails that Holmes believes that protests like these are sufficient to prove that Māori want to defraud Pākehā. And that is the substance of my complaint: Holmes is asserting (amongst other things) that Māori are out to cheat Pākehā. Holmes is thereby driving a wedge between Māori and Pākehā, and the Press Council is correspondingly entitled and required to step in.

This same logical structure is behind what I have called a subtler bigotry, that Holmes has different standards for what is acceptable for Māori as opposed to Pākeha. Mr Hastings seems to have missed the point of this. For reasons of space I won't repeat what I've said earlier, where I describe how Holmes is engaging in abusive mud-raking by tarring the protesters with the social ills of Māori, a standard he fails to consistently apply regarding the personal failings of individual Anzacs and the existence of Anzac atrocities (and we cannot impugn Holmes with the unseemly innocence required to deny their existence). I'm not saying we shouldn't support Anzac Day either: I'm saying that Holmes should show the same grace to Māori as he does his family members and their comrades in arms. His failure to do so indicates a discriminatory standard. I provide this analysis as an indication of the context within which Holmes is writing, and that context supports my reading, rather than Mr Hastings's.

The other feature of inferences, pragmatic, is something which linguists and philosophers call 'conversational implicature'. In short, we need to assume that people are being helpful with what they divulge in order to make sense of what they tell us (see  ). Very little of natural language use meets the standards of explicit and precise statement that formal logic requires, and we plug the gaps by making use of certain co-operative standards. I don't wish to labour this point with a summary of how conversational implicature works. The long and short of it is this: the only way we can make sense of the fact that Holmes repeatedly talks about features of Māori as a whole when describing what is objectionable about the protests, is that he believes that their being Māori is the pertinent fact. He doesn't even give any indication about the content of the protest—that too seems to be irrelevant in his eyes. No other explanation is provided, so, by the co-operative standards, Holmes must be saying that this is the relevant explanation, and enough of one. This is borne out by Holmes moving on to different, unrelated, topics, after the "No, if Maori want Waitangi Day for themselves, let them" paragraph: he has said his piece. And all that Holmes has talked about is his disgust at what is supposed to be an attempt by Māori to disregard their real problems and exploit Pākehā. The fact that he never troubles himself with separating the protesters in substance from Māori as a whole, or even what the protest was about, must be read as him asserting that there isn't anything pertinent to say there. Otherwise we render Holmes's column into contentless bleating. In contrast, there is an easy reading available which makes sense of the piece, where Holmes is casting Māori against Pākehā. There is a large audience of people who understood him as such. We are driven by the standards of language use to do the same.

The Mr Hastings spends the majority of his response to my complaint in reminding the Press Council about the freedom afforded the press to print even offensive items. He also lists a variety of pieces his paper has published on the issue. All of this is idle talk, however. The freedom to publish controversial items is not unqualified, and there are occasions where the Council can, must, and does intervene. Representing a variety of opinions is not an unqualified good, not if the breadth of opinion is enlarged to include the inflammatory and the racist. These are unfortunately viewpoints which find a ready audience, but we have a responsibility not to spur on divisions among New Zealanders. I am deeply worried by the fact that Mr Hastings and the Herald are entirely unreserved and unrepentant in their endorsement of Paul Holmes’s piece, which included (and this is not contested!) claims that the protest against John Key was driven by a conspiracy to extort money from Pākehā and calling Māori a race of child-abusers. A line has been crossed—the only possible effect, if Holmes is taken seriously at all, is a deepening divide between Māori and Pākehā on the basis of his ill-considered comments. Since the Herald does not seem to have the good judgement to recognise this as a matter calling for moderation, we have to depend on the Press Council to intervene.

Yours sincerely,
Marinus Ferreira

Monday, March 5, 2012

UK Government rolls out plan to partially privatise policeforce

Life imitating blogging: a few days ago I talked about why it is a mistake to model government action on private enterprise, and now the British government is making a big privatisation push in two of its police jurisdictions. The proposal is for contractors to take over many of the tasks of the West Midlands and Surrey police forces, including (quoting from the news article):
investigating crimes, detaining suspects, developing cases, responding to and investigating incidents, supporting victims and witnesses, managing high-risk individuals, patrolling neighbourhoods, managing intelligence, managing engagement with the public, as well as more traditional back-office functions, such as managing forensics, providing legal services, managing the vehicle fleet, finance and human resources.
 This is a large and wide-ranging introduction of private actors into a central government service. The practice of having non-sworn staff at police stations is old and well-established, and isn't at all a problem - not everything that needs to be done at a police station is police work. But this proposal goes far beyond that. The police has been awarded extraordinary powers in our society because they perform a certain role: its rights and responsibilities come from its place in the structure of government. But the police forces in question are presenting their role as a service role. To quote the West Midlands spokesperson: "Combining with the business sector is aimed at totally transforming the way the force currently does business – improving the service provided to the public." This is simply a gross mistake - police work isn't a service role, like rubbish collection - it is a constitutive part of government.

The problem goes much further than conceptual confusion. Because the government gives the wrong description of its role, it will damage its capacity to perform its role as it reshapes the organs of government in this misshapen image. For policing this will most likely lead to less responsiveness by the police to complaints from the public in its jurisdiction, something which already is a perennial problem even in the face of laws and offices of government which oversees police action. Since the private contractors are not part of the police proper, there is another layer between the overseeing authority and the people doing the work on the ground. To do so in the face of the recent riots against police misdeeds in the Mark Duggan shooting is simply perverse. This is a dire mistake, and the people of the West Midlands and Surrey will be the ones who carry the costs.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What is at stake in acts of government

Somewhere in the recent public debates about the role of government something that has dropped out of view is that the main task of a government is to govern - maintain the necessary infrastructure and institutions to keep a society going, organise and co-ordinate the resources of its constituents, and so on. A government is often being viewed and evaluated as you would an especially large and expansive company. But this misses entirely the task of government, because it neglects the part where governments have jurisdictions - domains in which they are expected (and required) to act with authority, otherwise they couldn't play their role as co-ordinating agency. Let me elaborate.

To take the extreme version of this failure to appreciate what is at stake in acts of government, take the libertarian model of government as a collection of enterprises, modelled on or constituted by private companies. This model is a product of view that private enterprises in competitive markets are, in certain rather common circumstances, extremely effective distributors of resources. There are two problems here. The first is that many of the traditional tasks of government are in circumstances where markets are very bad at distributing resources - healthcare is the stand-out example (here's one summary, and another), the same counts for extremely large projects the benefits of which are dispersed very widely, like transport and communication networks, or emergency response agencies, or monitoring programmes (a summary).

But let's concentrate on the second problem: that something a government has that no company has is a jurisdiction where it can compel a range of otherwise independent agents to co-ordinate. Take the laughably stupid suggestion of Ron Paul's to privatise the FAA or the TSA. These agencies don't perform consumer services, they are regulatory agencies. Some people might say that the TSA used to be in effect a series of private security companies and contractors before Homeland Security came along and emnployed them as federal agents, but that's wrong. The creation of Homeland Security didn't just change who writes the paychecks - it created a central co-ordinating authority. Homeland Security and its analogues have powers that no security firm has. I don't mean powers like 'now TSA has the power to force you to either receive a pat-down search or go through the body scanner'. I mean power as in capacity - there are things governing agencies can achieve that no alternative could. TSA decides that nobody can go through a US airport with certain liquids in carry-on luggage, and boom, it's done (given the resolution is enforceable, and not just a dead letter). Now every airport in the domain follows that resolution, and nobody goes through with certain liquids in carry-on. If the TSA was replaced with a series of security companies, a policy like that could extend only as far as the individual companies did. For the market to work effectively, there would have to be a variety of these companies (if there was a monopoly, it would be just like a government, but worse in every regard). Which means that there could be no resolution enforced across an entire domain.

You might not care about what goes in people's carry-on luggage, but the same point carries over to any government action. When slavery got banned by the UK, they were able to stamp out the intercontinental slave trade almost immediately because of the blanket prohibition on it across sovereign British territory (including large parts of the Atlantic). If slavery wasn't banned across the whole domain, individuals could have gained an economic advantage by continuing to use it while people around them don't, and as they took over more of the market slavery would then be reintroduced. This is how it is in general for regulation - there is no way for there to be any kind of competition among regulations, because a regulation isn't a regulation unless it is an uncontested authority over its domain. Similarly, a government can't co-ordinate without authority, and we need that co-ordination for goods like healthcare, transport networks, the maintenance of certain societal standards, etc.

(First aside: The above is one of the reasons the US's widespread use of security contractors in warzones is so pernicious - in practice it has meant that these security firms have all of the authority of the governmental agencies that back them, but none of the controls placed on the government.)
(Second aside: There is another effect of this observation, regarding another lamentable shortcoming in a lot of public debate. Often when questionable market practices are pointed out - working conditions in China, financiers reneging on promises not to fund certain types of industry, etc. - the response comes that attempts to regulate this domain would be self-defeating, since there are agents outside the domain who will continue on regardless (here's an example). This is no comment at all about the desirability of the regulations. It's a comment on how far the jurisdiction of the regulators go. If we took this seriously as a reason not to have regulations, then we couldn't have any regulations whatsoever, and every domain would become a race to the bottom.)

The above is a comment on what is involved in something being a government. It shouldn't be read as a comment on the desirability of any particular system of government, or even of which domains a co-ordinating authority like described above is needed - the above is a schema that applies to all systems of government. It applies even to anarchists in the tradition of Proudhon and Kropotkin, who want extremely direct and reconstructed forms of governmental authority. It doesn't apply to libertarian model canvassed earlier, because as discussed that isn't a theory of government proper. It does apply to serious thinkers like Hayek and Nozick during his libertarian phase (they just think authorities like described above should have extremely limited domains), but Ron Paul bears as much resemblance to them as he does to the Emperor of Japan.

Complaint to Press Council re: Holmes on Waitangi Day

The New Zealand Herald gave me another response to my complaint regarding Paul Holmes's inflammatory Waitangi Day piece, after I had told them that I was dissatisfied with their first response. While this second response was far longer, it simply re-iterated the position of the Herald and its Weekend editor, David Hastings, that clearly Holmes was aiming at one small band of Māori protesters, rather than making inflammatory remarks about Māori as a whole. For the second time they made no reply at all to the substance of my complaint: that is, they made no attempt to explain the paragraph where Holmes seems to take aim at Māori as a whole with racist invective ("No, if Maori want Waitangi Day for themselves, let them have it... and work out new ways of bamboozling the Pakeha to come up with a few more millions") and no mention at all of the discriminatory standards I indicated in my complaint. Given that they have twice had the opportunity to respond to my complaint, and have twice not done so, I made recourse of a complaint to the Press Council.
For those keeping score at home, here's the summary of my complaint that I needed to give in my complaint:

The New Zealand Herald, in its Weekend edition of 11/2, published an opinion piece by Paul Holmes titled 'Waitangi Day A Complete Waste'. To summarise my complaint (see my correspondence with the paper for the fuller version), I want to highlight three points on which this piece is objectionable, all three to do with discrimination against Māori. The first concerns racist invective, the second two discriminatory standards applied to Māori.

The first point is that Holmes straightforwardly makes inflammatory remarks aimed at Māori in the following paragraph: "No, if Maori want Waitangi Day for themselves, let them have it. Let them go and raid a bit more kai moana than they need for the big, and feed themselves silly, speak of the injustices heaped upon them by the greedy Pakeha and work out new ways of bamboozling the Pakeha to come up with a few more millions." Notice that the group indicated is simply 'Māori', not some group of individuals. There is no way to read this passage other than in the obvious way, as an attempt to alienate Māori from Pākehā.

 Secondly, in his response to the protesters at Te Tii Marae, Holmes makes a number of claims which are conditional on them being Māori, and discriminates against them accordingly; in particular, that the protesters can't be taken seriously until larger social ills affecting Māori are addressed. The manner in which Holmes does this is inflammatory in the extreme (to quote: “...never mind the hopeless failure of Maori to educate their children and stop them bashing their babies“), but even if it weren't, it would place a different standard on Māori protesters than on Pākehā. Holmes tries to pin a set of troubles on the protestors merely because they are Māori, using their ethnicity as a way to dismiss their claims.

Thirdly, Holmes uses a different standard to judge the standing of Māori in New Zealand than he does Pākehā, by making the status Waitangi Day contingent on the actions of a small section of Māori, whereas presumably Anzac Day is not contingent on the misdeeds of small segments of Anzac soldiers acting as such.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

NZ Herald's Response to complaint re: Paul Holmes

I received a response to my complaint from the editor of the Weekend Herald, David Hastings. The response was very much in line of those other complainants have received. I won't post it here, but Hastings ran the line that Holmes was clearly targeting the small band of protesters at Te Tii Marae, not Māori as a whole. He pinpointed the examples of Holmes talking about "Maori fringe self-denial day" and "that's what it looked like the other day" as examples. 

Those who read my complaint will notice these aren't the parts of Holmes's piece I picked out. I responded to Hastings with the following:

Dear Mr Hastings

Thank you taking the time to respond to my complaint.

I, however, have to admit that I am disappointed by your reaction. It is certainly possible for someone to start on one issue and slide to another one during the course of a piece – in fact, this is the shape large amounts of prejudiced invective takes. Furthermore, even if the parts of the article you cite did refer to the protesters rather than to Māori as a whole, those are not the parts I drew your attention to. I concentrated on the clearest example of invective aimed against Māori as a whole, the section starting with “No, if Maori want Waitangi Day for themselves, let them have it.” You have said nothing about this section. Nor have you said anything about the different standards Holmes uses for judging Māori and Pākehā. Thus, you have made no response to the substance of my complaint.

I took the trouble to look through previous Press Council rulings on discrimination, and have found examples where they have upheld complaints where a piece started off indicating one section of a population, but then went on to make defamatory statements of the population at large. One I have at hand is 1092 GRANT HANNIS AGAINST NORTH & SOUTH – it is not a perfect analogue (the piece in question is not an opinion piece, and issues of accuracy are also involved), but it shows that the Press Council is willing to uphold complaints against pieces which starts off with qualifications about who is being targeted, but then go on to make wide-ranging discriminatory statements.

With that in mind, I must press on my complaint. Do you and your paper have some further response to make? I await your reply with interest.

Yours sincerely,
Marinus Ferreira

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Complaint re: Paul Holmes on Waitangi Day

This Saturday the weekend edition of the New Zealand Herald published an opinion column by Paul Holmes (someone with a chequered history) which was, to put it plainly, racially motivated hate speech. This was the letter of complaint I wrote to the editor. If you wish to do the same, his name is Tim Murphy and his address is

Dear Mr Murphy

I wish to lodge a complaint with your paper on your decision to publish Paul Holmes's opinion column 'Waitangi Day a complete waste' in the Weekend Herald 11/2. I appreciate that this is an opinion piece, and thus held to different standards than most reporting, and that under freedom of speech you are entitled to publish even pieces that could reasonably be called ignorant and stupid. Nonetheless, Holmes's piece has crossed into hate speech, in that he is inspiring tensions between Māori and Pākehā by extrapolating, from one small protest against a particular act of government, a racially driven conspiracy by the former against the latter. This goes past any protection afforded to the press - no amount of balancing views or public agreement with this sentiment can excuse this incitement against racial tensions. I ask for an apology by Holmes and your paper, and to have the piece retracted or suitably modified.

The part I want to draw your special attention to is this declaration:

"No, if Maori want Waitangi Day for themselves, let them have it. Let them go and raid a bit more kai moana than they need for the big, and feed themselves silly, speak of the injustices heaped upon them by the greedy Pakeha and work out new ways of bamboozling the Pakeha to come up with a few more millions."

On the face of it, this is straightforwardly race-baiting. Holmes has called for New Zealand as a whole to abandon celebrating what is now the national day in order to distance ourselves from an offensive party, that party being Māori. The only possible defence for this would be if Holmes meant the Māori protesters he highlighted earlier, but that reading simply isn't available. Firstly, there is no qualification in this declaration - those he rails against are indicated simply as Māori. Secondly, placing this quote in context does not help at all. In order to motivate his dismissal of the protestor's claims, he runs through a litany of societal ills that Māori face. I won't go into the accuracy of his claims, and noting only in passing that the inflammatory fashion Holmes does this in is already grounds for a valid complaint: calling Māori a race of child-abusers who don't educate their children is beyond the pale, but that is exactly what Holmes does. I'll pass those serious worries by and indicate another one - that Holmes's case on the protesters is conditional on them being Māori, otherwise these complaints simply wouldn't make sense. This means he discriminates against the protesters on the grounds of their ethnicity - Holmes finds the protests objectionable in part because the protesters are Māori, and has used your paper for his racially charged invective. This is unacceptable, and it demands you immediate action.

There is a more subtle bigotry at work here as well. Holmes proposes that Anzac Day take the place of Waitangi Day. But presumably Holmes is unworried by the fact that a great many ANZAC soldiers have, acting as ANZAC soldiers, performed heinous misdeeds - the massacre at Sarafand being a clear example - and that it would be easy to find examples of child abusers, terrible parenting, and similar ills among the ranks of the soldiers he lionises. To hold the heritage of the Anzacs hostage to the misdeeds of the few would be abusive muckraking. But that is exactly what Holmes wants us to do with Māori and Waitangi Day - because of what he believes is a lunatic fringe, we should stop celebrating this moment where Māori and Pākehā were united into one nation. Because Holmes has claimed that Māori membership in the spirit or identity of New Zealand is contingent (i.e. contingent on addressing certain social ills as a group), whereas that of his Pākehā great-uncles isn't similarly hostage to the misdeeds of their fellow Anzacs, he is discriminating against Māori because they are Māori. Again, this is the type of racism for which there is no place in our society, and which you have every duty to stamp out immediately and decisively.

I will not burden you with a discussion on most of the content of the piece, though none of it reflects well on Holmes. Monday I submitted a letter to the editor through the usual channels, but I have supplemented it with this complaint in order to ensure that the matter came to your attention. I am not passing a comment on the material you have published. I am accusing your paper of gross misjudgement in giving a platform for incitement to racial tension and discrimination, and demand that you give this and similar complaints attention appropriate to the seriousness of the matter at hand.

Yours sincerely,
Marinus Ferreira

Friday, January 6, 2012

Transplanting Ricardo's result on rent to worker's wages

Having been introduced to the philosophical interest of classical economics through Robert Paul Wolff's Understanding Marx and his tutorial on Ricardo, I was prompted me to think a little deeper about Ricardo's results, in particular a very striking one about how rent paid for land plays no part in determining the price of agricultural goods. I've been trying to determine whether the result applies to worker's wages (and their conditions more widely), and if so, how. If it does, then that would mean the wages paid to the workers, the costs to maintain working conditions, and other expenditures paid to the benefit of workers is not factored directly into the cost of production, but is a dividend paid to the workers out of the profits, just the way renting land is under Ricardo's theorem. I am at the moment uncertain about whether this is misguided, or whether it's in fact something that is acknowledged in Ricardo and Marx, and how best to understand it.

As a bit of throat-clearing, it's worthwhile to sketch out the terms of Ricardo's theorem. When cultivating agriculture, we can simplify the actual state of affairs to the point where there are two things you as someone in the market for land are looking for: how productive the land is (that is, how much of value can be raised on it) and the cost of renting it. You make a profit by making use of a productive process on a piece of land so that the value of what is sold on the market is higher than the costs that went into running that process and the cost of renting the land. However, the price corn is the price of corn, no matter where it is grown, and similarly for every product (milk, eggs, bananas, foie gras, whatever). There is a wrinkle here, that many things are considered better if they come from a particular area or are produced in a certain way - sparkling wines from Champagne, for instance. But the price of that good - sparkling wines from Champagne of such-and-such quality - is constant, no matter the cost any individual farmer might incur to produce it. So, since manipulating the price is out of the reach of all but the largest producers (who we aren't considering in this simplified case), what the producer has to work with to try and wrangle a profit is by trying to rent as productive land as possible for as little as possible. The first ones to try and rent the most productive land can do so for a song, since in the absence of other demand the marginal price they offer is still better for the land owner than earning nothing. As more and more producers go for the most productive land, the price of rent increases, until it reaches the point where the renting the second most productive land instead becomes worthwhile, because its lower output is more than compensated by cheaper rent. Then, as more producers stream to the second most productive land, it's price rises, and people start renting the third most productive land instead, and so on. Provided there is always cheaper land available somewhere, no matter how unproductive, the price of renting the next acre of land tends towards zero. But the price of corn, or eggs, or sparling wine form Champagne of such-and-such quality, remains the same, and that price is one which is profitable even on the least productive land. Since the cost of renting that land tends towards zero, so does its contribution to the price of corn. But only the cost of the least productive land plays a part in setting the price of the product, so the contribution of the cost of rent on the price of the product tends to zero. Thus, rent plays no part in the price of the product, under our simplifying assumptions. Any money paid to the landowners is like a dividend, a piece of the profits which are gifted to them because of their privileged position.
Now to get to the real action. It's clear that there are strong analogues between the land-rent and the employment-cost cases. Just as with land, we can distinguish between workers based on their productivity, and like some land is cheaper to rent than others there is a grading of workers based on the cost of employing them - globalisation, if nothing else, has seen to that. Also, the price of the goods the workers manufacture is constant no matter how costly the production is. Once again there is the issue of higher-quality (and correspondingly more expensive to produce) goods fetching higher prices, but like with fine wines we can account for that by pointing out that goods of such-and-such quality fetches a certain price on the market, irrespective of the particular manner of production. We thus get a similar slide down the grades of workers - a producer figures out that there is more money to be made by paying slightly less productive workers significantly less to do the same work, and so on to the bottom of the pay scale. So far, this is just like the land-rent case.

The only salient difference I can see is that the cost of employment doesn't bottom out at zero, unlike land-rent, because if nothing else the workers need to have the means for subsistence. Then, the impact of the cost of employment on the price of a product wouldn't tend to zero, but instead to whatever the minimal cost of living is for whatever period of time the employee is hired for. This, as far as I understand it, is Marx's own view, which leads him into his discussion of the customary cost of living. I think the most pointed response to this is to point out that while workers need to eat, it is by no means a necessary truth that their employers will be the ones to foot the bill. If they can pass that burden on to someone else, the productive process would continue unabated, and their profits would be larger. This happens in actuality - consider for instance the use of prison labour, which is often unpaid and rarely at market rates, or the pernicious tendency to make more and more use of unpaid interns in what would otherwise be relatively well-paid entry-level professional roles. These people with zero or marginal income from their work are a very small proportion of the workforce, so their impact on the labour market is minimal given that there are very few producers who have the opportunity to exploit their existence. The point, however, is that this shows that in principle workers on zero or marginal incomes are possible. Since there would have to be a lot of shuffling of our social order in order to turn this from a rarity to something commonplace, that possibility might not be very immediate, but it is chilling. And, no matter the actualities of what people get paid for their work, it shows that, in principle, the economic arrangement of capitalism is not geared in order to provide in any way at all for the sustenance of workers. The race to the bottom of working conditions we are now living through should be an object lesson in the same.

How does this fit into the classical economics of Ricardo and Marx? In one way, very nicely: it seems to put even more of a point on something classical economics makes quite clear already - that the interests of the owners of the means of production and of the workers are directly opposed. They are competing in a zero-sum game of who gets what proportion of the profits of the productive processes, and the cutting-up of the pie has nothing to do with what went into baking it. But in another manner this result, if it holds, is at odds with some of the views of especially Marx. If I understand the result correctly, it would mean that labour can't really be a commodity, and employing a worker isn't like buying their alienated labour. I myself have never been exactly happy with those terms of Marx's analysis (though his point is clear enough) since I rank as very literal-minded even among analytic philosophers and I cannot take him at his word about the commodification of labour. The price of labour under Marx is the cost of sustenance for the individuals providing the labour, but I do not see why that cost is supposed to be inherent to the wages they received. Certainly their employers aren't buying their food and houses for them, and work done for free has all of the creative power that Marx identifies for labour. Correspondingly, there seems to me a mismatch between the costs Marx identifies for labour and what employers pay for. Marx is right that at the very minimum of justice employers will pay enough for people to live off, and live off at at least their customary standard. But I do not see why justice is inherent in the production process, in the same way fuel and tools are. That seems very optimistic.

Instead, payment for labour is a dividend given to people in a position with the sufficient privilege to demand it (where small privileges lead to small dividends). I understand how the terms of classical economics, from Adam Smith through to Marx, shows labour's place in the lattice of goods along with grain, iron, and all of the rest. But instead of seeing human labour as one commodity among others, I think it is more perspicacious to see the economy as a shared human product, with each person drawing from it the dividend that society has allotted them. This would, for instance, make very good sense of the increasing tendency of the very highest earners in our society to not be owners of enterprises, but ostensibly get their wealth as payment for services rendered (people like hedge fund managers, who are as a class second to none regarding wealth), and how often people who do much of the most undesirable work are frequently badly paid - cleaners, garbage men, sewerworkers, and so on. If I am right about the above result, that the cost of no good depends in principle on the cost of employing labour, that seems to be the only analysis available.

I am perhaps getting ahead of myself, heading into territory of trying to interpret formal results mapped onto decidedly unsimplified realities, but these are the directions issues like those I raise above guide us into.