History of Profit in the US: Corporations, Accounting and Capital

Youngstown Sheet and Tube CompanyThe case of The United Steel Workers of America v. The United States Steel Corporation (1980) concerned the closing of two steel mills in Ohio. The steelworkers claimed U.S. Steel had promised to keep the two mills open so long as they were “profitable” and that the mills in fact were. The corporation said they were not. Its CEO stated that in light of particular metrics and according to his “best judgment,” the mills were operating at a loss. In his decision, Justice Edwards admitted that profit had revealed itself to be a matter of “interpretation.” Profit, the judge realized, is no obvious, neutral, or timeless economic benchmark. Rather, it is a calculative practice open to interpretation and corporations decide what profit is.
Rather than being a timeless category, profit has a history as contingent and as eventful as any other. Spanning from the dissemination of double-entry accounting bookkeeping in the early nineteenth-century United States to the mark-to-market criteria of contemporary global capitalism,Accounting for Profit and the History of Capital(open access below) by Jonathan Levy (Princeton University) aims to assemble and narrate a history of profit. Profit, despite its changing accounting definitions, always concerns a rate over time. In addition to serving as a medium of competition and a category of distribution, a chief task of profit under capitalism is to organize capital’s inherent temporal motion. Posing the problem this way leads to the temporal logics of the changing forms of capital—the biological life cycle of the slave, the rusting obsolescence of the steel mill, the debt-financed “special purpose entity“ of today’s financial markets—from which capitalists define and make profit. It also leads to the history of corporations, ultimately the great scenes of action in profit’s history. But the Profit only continued to be a matter of interpretation.
This interdisciplinary article is an interesting and important contribution to economic sociology and political economy in general and critical study of accounting particularly. 

Levy, Jonathan. 2014. Accounting for Profit and the History of Capital.” Critical Historical Studies 1 (2): 171-214.

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One comment

  1. Very important post. Is one paid from wages for their labour or paid from the “profit” of a company. The increasing inequality we see in society can find a root cause in this question. Indoctrination into establishment thinking entails that there is truth in profit and that calculating it is a scientific endeavor but as any astute accountant must admit that the way a balance sheet and income statement looks will depend to a great extent on who is the target audience: investors, labour or government taxation authorities.

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