John Quiggin in Jacobin:
David Graeber’s denunciation of “bullshit jobs” resonated with many, producing a string of responses. Alex Tabarrok and Brad DeLong have suggested that the apparent inverse relationship between earnings and the social value of work done is simply an illustration of “diamond-water” paradox, that prices and wages are determined by marginal, rather than absolute values and that marginal values reflect scarcity as well as utility. Peter Frase refutes this claim in both empirical terms (noting for example the fact that the price of diamonds is set by the De Beers cartel rather than pure market forces) and as a resurrection of the discredited marginal productivity ethics of the 19th century.
I’d like to look at a specific question raised by the discussion of private returns and social value, namely: can Wall Street, in its present form, be justified? That is, does the share of income flowing to corporations and professional workers in the financial sector reflect their marginal contribution to the total value of social output, so that, if their work ceased to be done and their skills were allocated elsewhere, we would all be worse off?
I argue that society as a whole would be better off if the financial sector were smaller, and received much smaller returns. A political strategy based on cutting the financial sector down to size has more promise for the Left than any alternative approach now on offer, and is a necessary precondition for a broader attempt to make the distribution of wealth and power more equal.