Past Meetup

"Surplus Value" vs "No Free Lunch"

This Meetup is past

11 people went

Midtown Diner

155 E 55th St · New York, NY

How to find us

We'll be in the front of the diner.

Location image of event venue


The following is required reading for this event

Karl Marx had a concept called "surplus value" which he did not invent, but which he refined and liked to talk about. The basic concept is that it is wealth accumulated by the capitalist that they did not rightfully earn. Interest payments, corporate profits, and rents are often classified by people on the left as forms of surplus value.

• Interest payments compensate the creditor for foregoing consumption, and putting their capital at risk, which enables the debtor to make some positive use of the money.

• Corporate profits compensate shareholders, also for forgoing consumption and putting capital at risk. The company cannot produce unless someone foregoes consumption to fund the creation of the means of production.

• Rents compensate landlords for foregoing consumption so that a dwelling may be constructed, and putting capital at risk. The building will not be built unless someone forgoes consumption to make the resources available to build it. The renter takes little risk -- if the neighborhood goes down the tubes, they can just move, while the landlord loses much of the value of their investment. Are rents on undeveloped land, as opposed to rents on buildings, a form of surplus value?

I believe in a principle at odds with Marx that I call the "No Free Lunch" principle. I believe that it is rare (though not totally impossible) that one can get paid much without contributing something positive to someone else, especially over the long term.

In the economic system, people come together and form teams, such as companies, to create wealth. If anyone on the team is not contributing as much to the creation of wealth as they are getting paid by the team, A: the other members of the team will try to remove them (i.e. fire them), or at least B: the next time someone forms a new team, the others will try to not include that person or that person's role, furthermore, if the surplus value role cannot be eliminated, C: the smell of easy money will draw in more and more competition for that sort of role until the price (or wages) collected for it are driven down.

In the context of government regulation, many opportunities to gain wealth without contributing much (or anything, even) are created. Owners of New York City taxi medallions, for example, perform no useful service, yet they collect something like half of the cab fare. But for this discussion, let's exclude rent-seeking opportunities created by government, and discuss situations where, in a purely free market, someone is able to extract something for nothing.

When OWS types talk about "the 1%", their narrative is often cluttered with accusations that much of the money being collected by the 1% is not honestly earned. There is much talk of Wall Street types "gaming the system", but since OWS people are usually financial illiterates, they generally cannot paint any specifics.

It is probably easy for someone who has never taken high school physics to believe that a clever Ivy League mechanical engineering undergrad can build a perpetual motion machine. Similarly, it is easy for someone who has little understanding of economics to believe that most Wall Street bankers are just gaming the system.

At the same time, a large fraction of all the wealth created in the economy nowadays is happening in the financial sector. Are they really earning all that money, or are they simply gaming the system, and if they are gaming the system, how exactly are they doing it?

What about investing in gold? Capital invested in gold funds the extraction of it from the ground, but is that really doing anyone any good? And if you buy gold and the price goes up, have you done anything that benefits anyone else? Is there any reason to expect the price of gold to regularly increase, rather than decrease? Are there some ways to invest in commodities and reliably make money without doing anyone else any good?