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A Foreword to Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 5th May 2015

Piero Sraffa’s classic Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities (PCMC) was published in 1960. It runs into 87 pages of main text (inclusive of the content list), 6 pages of appendices, less than 3 pages of Preface and a 3-page index. As we pointed out in A Foreword to Keynes’s General Theory, by foreword, we mean the following: ‘The introduction to a literary work, usually stating its subject, purpose, scope, method, etc.’ (Oxford English Dictionary).

The book is subtitled ‘Prelude to a Critique of Political Economy’. This slim book is divided into 3 parts: (1) ‘single-product industries and circulating capital’; (2) ‘multi-product industries and fixed capital’; and an untitled third part containing a single chapter titled ‘Switch in Methods of Production’. In the Preface, Sraffa acknowledges Keynes, A. S. Besicovitch (‘for invaluable mathematical help’), Frank Ramsey and Alister Watson. Sraffa was friends with Gramsci and Wittgenstein. [Ramsey, a friend of Keynes, supervised the 40-year old Wittgenstein’s PhD thesis at the age of 26 (source).] Appendix D contains the ‘references to the literature’ wherein works by Quesnay, Smith, Ricardo, Torrens, Malthus and Marx are mentioned. As Sraffa writes in the appendix, ‘[t]he connection of this work with the theories of the old classical economists have been alluded to in the Preface. A few references to special points, the source of which may not be obvious, are added here’ (p. 93). The orthodox economists mentioned by Sraffa are Marshall and Wicksteed.

With respect to method, Sraffa adopts the standpoint of the old classical economists – the surplus approach to value and distribution. This is contrast to the orthodox marginalist scarcity approach to value and distribution. In the surplus approach, one distributive variable is exogenously determined. This is in fact a realistic assumption because the rate of interest is set by monetary authorities and the rate of profit can be conceptualised as a sum of the riskless rate of interest (on government securities) and a pure rate of return on capital.

The conception of the ‘system of production and consumption as a circular process’, Sraffa notes in Appendix D, is to be found in Quesnay which ‘stands in striking contrast to the view presented by modern theory [marginalist], of a one-way avenue that leads from “Factors of production” to “Consumption goods”’ (p. 93) [cf. Kurz & Salvadori 2005]. The subject matter of PCMC is the theory of value and distribution – how are relative prices and distributive variables determined? More specifically, in an economy where the production of commodities is undertaken by means of commodities, how are prices and distributive variables determined? Sraffa’s correct solution is that ‘the distribution of the surplus must be determined through the same mechanism and at the same time as are the prices of commodities’ (p. 6). What are the data or givens? (1) size and composition of output; (2) methods of production; and (3) one distributive variable (either the wage rate or profit rate). The first two givens are mentioned in the Preface when Sraffa writes that his ‘investigation is concerned exclusively with such properties of an economic system as do not depend on changes in the scale of production or in the proportions of “factors”’ (p. v). The rationale for the third given is as follows: ‘…the practice, followed from outset, of treating the wage rather than the rate of profits as the independent variable or “given” quantity’ has been reversed because the ‘rate of profits, as a ratio, has a significance which is independent of any prices, and can well be “given” before the prices are fixed … in particular by the level of the money rates of interest’ (p. 33).

While the scope of PCMC is limited to the subject matter, its implications on general economic theory are far reaching; for instance, his work has implications for the theory of value and distribution (capital theory forms an important part of this). Therefore, his work has positively contributed to the theorising of economic growth and environmental economics. Also, Sraffa’s work is to be a ‘basis for a critique of’ ‘the marginal theory of value and distribution’ (p. vi). Sraffa’s work is a coherent articulation of the theory of value and distribution the classical economists attempted to solve. At the same time, it also forms the basis for a critique of the marginalist theory of value and distribution by underscoring the logical fallacy in treating capital as a quantity independent of prices.

In a sense, the purpose of Sraffa’s work depends on the use that is made of it and there is a growing body of literature emanating from PCMC (a useful survey is Aspromourgos’s 2004 paper titled ‘Sraffian Research Programmes and Unorthodox Economics’). The classical approach to economics has been made more articulate and coherent. By marrying the classical or ‘surplus’ approach to value and distribution with the principle of effective demand, an alternative explanation for the determination of activity levels and economic growth has been developed. Work is also going on in the areas of environmental economics, public debt, monetary economics and history of economic thought, all of which draws upon and/or are inspired by Sraffa’s work.

The Indian readers would be interested to know that an Indian edition of PCMC was published by Vora & Co. Publishers, Bombay (available online).  However, PCMC is out of print since 1996 according to Cambridge University Press.

Those of us who are dissatisfied with mainstream neoclassical economics will find valuable insights and an economically superior but modest basis in Sraffa’s work to develop a coherent alternative to the mainstream approach to economic thinking. Particularly fruitful is this research programme when combined with the rich insights of the classical economists and Marx as well as the principle of effective demand of Kalecki and Keynes.

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Posted in Adam Smith, Classical Economics, Classical Political Economy, David Ricardo, Economic Thought, Economics, History of Economic Thought, Karl Marx, Keynes, Malthus, Sraffa, Thomas Malthus | No Comments »

A Very Brief Introduction to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 31st March 2015

The Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (WoN hereafter) was published on 9th March, 1776. It was advertised in the concluding paragraph of Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). This blog post is a very brief introduction to Adam Smith’s theory of political economy as presented in the WoN. According to John Rae, the biographer of Smith, the WoN ‘took twelve years to write, and was in contemplation for probably twelve years before that.’ Smith never engaged in any commercial activity unlike his predecessor, Richard Cantillon or his successor, David Ricardo, yet his insights into the working of the competitive economy is intellectually deep and of enduring relevance. His intellectual acquaintances include David Hume, Francois Quesnay, Jacques Turgot and Voltaire.

WoN is divided into 5 books: Book I presents a detailed examination of how labour becomes productive, and contains a theory of supply (of output). On what factors does the annual supply of commodities depend? Book II builds on this and contains a theory of accumulation (of capital stock). The growth policies undertaken by various nations form the content of Book III. The existing theories of political economy are critically appraised in Book IV; this book also includes the policy effects of these theories. Finally, in Book V, a theory of public finance – the theory of the revenue, expenditure and borrowing of the government – is outlined. Given the recurring themes of economic growth and development in this blog, the title of books I and II deserve to be quoted in full.

Book I: Of the Causes of Improvement in the productive Powers of Labour, and of the Order according to which its Produce is naturally distributed among the different Ranks of the People

Book II: Of the Nature, Accumulation, and Employment of Stock

In other words, the first book contains a theory of income distribution and the second contains a theory of economic growth. Recent research has noted the similarities between Smith’s theory of economic growth and neoclassical ‘new economic growth theory’ of Romer; in fact, Smith’s theory clearly emerges as a superior one.

The ‘necessaries and conveniences of life’, according to Smith, are produced by labour. That is, labour produces the annual aggregate supply of commodities and services. The nation is considered better supplied if the proportion between the annual aggregate supply and annual population is high. To expand this definition and adopting modern terminology, we can say that this idea of Smith corresponds to that of output per capita (for example, a high GDP per capita is favoured over a low GDP per capita). Further, Smith asks: what determines the output per capita? According to Smith, there are two factors which determine this proportion. (1) The productivity of labour, and (2) the ratio of workers employed in physical and human capital generation to other workers. Smith uses a different terminology: the ratio of productive to unproductive labour. The number of workers employed in physical and human capital formation is necessarily in proportion to the capital advanced in these sectors. And, labour productivity depends on the capital advanced. But, what is there in Smith’s theory of economic growth which ensures that the growth in aggregate supply is validated by an equivalent growth in aggregate demand?

Smith’s WoN, particularly the first 2 books, is of much contemporary relevance in understanding the socio-cultural idea of ‘subsistence wage’. Also, it contains a rich exposition of productivity unlike the ‘blackbox’ of productivity commonly found in the Solow-type growth theory. Smith’s WoN contains both logical rigour as well as rich prose, and together they vastly enrich our understanding of economic phenomena.

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Posted in Adam Smith, Classical Economics, Classical Political Economy, Economic Thought, Economics, History of Economic Thought, Macroeconomics | No Comments »

On Competition in Economic Theory

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 31st July 2014

The assumption of ‘perfect competition’ is central to marginalist (neoclassical) economics. In classical economics, a strand of non-orthodox economics, a seemingly similar but fundamentally different assumption of ‘free competition’ is made. This blog post is about the differences between classical and marginalist economics with respect to their definitions of competition. A further comment relating to the method of economics is also made in connection with this matter in the concluding paragraph.

In marginalist economics, under conditions of ‘perfect competition’, the demand and supplies of commodities and all factors of production are in equilibrium. There is no unemployment of labour or any underutilization of capacity (‘capital’). What are these conditions of ‘perfect competition’? A large number of firms is assumed to exist, each too small to be able to set the price. That is, all firms are price takers and they attempt to maximize their profits. There are no barriers to entry or exit. Further, it is assumed that whatever the firms supply, there always exists sufficient demand. One wonders whether there is any real agency to these price-taking firms and entrepreneurs. When questions are posed in classrooms about their correspondence with reality, the response provided is that such conditions do not actually exist but are a first and a necessary abstraction so as to examine conditions of oligopoly or monopolistic competition. So, what is profit in marginalist economics under ‘perfect competition’? It is the marginal product of ‘capital’, which is zero entailing that profits just cover the interest costs; that is, are no returns to entrepreneurs undertaking risk and uncertainty? Ignoring the capital theoretic problems faced by marginalist economics, underlying this conception is the view that capitalists and workers are (‘justly’) rewarded for their contribution to production.

On the other hand, classical economists, from Adam Smith to Karl Marx, and contemporary economists following the classical tradition, after its revival by Piero Sraffa in 1960, assume ‘free competition’. There is free mobility of labour and ‘capital’. Firms and entrepreneurs are profit maximizers as in marginalist economics. No restrictions are imposed on the number of firms or their ability to set prices. The process of competition – profit-maximizing behaviour plus mobility of factors – tends to make the market prices gravitate towards long-period normal prices and a uniform rate of profit is obtained on the capital advanced. Note that the rate of profit is not zero as in marginalist economics. Alterations in demand and supply affect the market prices. If market prices fall below normal prices, production is not profitable and depending on their permanence the affected firms might exit the industry. Alternatively, production may be cut down because of the lack of adequate demand. Moreover, real wages are determined by wider social and political forces. If real wages are given (and given technology), the rate of profit and the configuration of normal prices are determined. Or, if the rate of profit is determined via the rate of interest set by monetary authorities, the real wage and the set of normal prices are determined. That is, distributive variables are capable of being determined exogenously. This is in stark contrast with the marginalist theory – the marginal productivity theory of distribution, as it is called. Classical economics in contrast to marginalist economics has a logically consistent theory of value and distribution embedded in a framework of competition with realistic conditions. Also, classical economics is able to accommodate institutions, be it collective bargaining or monetary policy, within its framework without any difficulties.

To conclude, besides other logical problems marginalist economics faces, it also possesses a rather restrictive notion of competition. But, does economic theorizing require such an assumption? My answer is in the affirmative. To identify casual chains, however short they might be, an environment of ‘free competition’ must be assumed. With free mobility of labour and ‘capital’ – a genuine conception of a competitive economy, a uniform rate of profit is obtained. But, note that a classical competitive equilibrium does not entail full employment. [Non-competitive elements will generate differential profit rates.] So, should we abandon the study of economic phenomena under ‘free competition’? No, because it conveys to us tendencies in a competitive economy and non-competitive processes are conceptualised as a departure from competitive ones.

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Posted in Classical Economics, Economics, Employment, Marginalist economics, Markets, Neoclassical Economics | No Comments »

Robert Torrens: An Introduction

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 30th September 2013

Robert Torrens’s An Essay on the Production of Wealth (1821) is an important contribution to economic theory, in particular, to classical economic theory. Torrens was involved in the founding of the London Political Economy Club along with James Mill, David Ricardo, Thomas Tooke and others. Torrens has written extensively on monetary issues, on colonisation and on price theory. He is also credited with having discovered the comparative costs principle independently of Ricardo. This blog post focuses on his contributions to the theory of value and the possibility of a general glut in his debate with Ricardo.

Torrens is one of the very few (to be precise, nine) economists mentioned by Piero Sraffa in his Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities; Sraffa approvingly cites him for his method of treating fixed capital. Fixed capital is conceptualised as a distinct commodity (a joint product) alongside new commodities which emerge from the production process. Torrens utilises a theory of value based on ‘capital’ as opposed to Ricardo’s labour theory of value. But, how is ‘capital’ to be measured without the knowledge of values/prices? Ricardo recognises that when labour-capital ratios are not uniform across sectors, value will not be proportional to the embodied labour. And, as Carlo Benetti writes in his entry on Torrens in The Elgar Companion to Classical Economics, when the rate of profit is zero, the labour theory of value holds; however, the existence of positive profits does not per se invalidate Ricardo’s labour theory of value. A satisfactory resolution of this problem in value theory is to be found in Sraffa’s simultaneous determination of profits and prices.

The macroeconomics of Torrens, built on his theory of value and distribution, suggests the possibility of a general glut in the economy. On general gluts, Torrens writes: ‘a glut of a particular commodity may occasion a general stagnation, and lead to a suspension of production, not merely of the commodity which first exists in excess, but of all other commodities brought to the market’ (Torrens 1821: 414; as quoted in the Benetti entry on page 473). The underlying reason for this is a disproportion between the different sectors of the economy. Owing to the structural interdependence prevalent in an economy, a disproportion can lead to a fall in ‘effectual demand’. This will lead to a glut in commodities in that particular sector and in other sectors as a consequence of a fall in sales and incomes in that sector. This, evidently, is in direct contrast with Say’s law, loosely understood as – supply creates its own demand.

Other notable commentators on Torrens include Giancarlo DeVivo and Lionel Robbins. The latter published his work in 1958 entitled Robert Torrens and the Evolution of Classical Economics. In 2000, DeVivo edited and put together the Collected Works of Robert Torrens. Studying Torrens will certainly prove invaluable in gaining a deeper understanding of classical economics, and especially his views on general gluts might have contemporary use in relation to the economics of Keynes and Kalecki.

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Posted in Classical Economics, Classical Political Economy, David Ricardo, Economic Thought, Economics, History of Economic Thought, Keynes, Macroeconomics, Michal Kalecki, Sraffa | No Comments »