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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 »

Kunkel on David Harvey and Robert Brenner: Demand, Profits and Employment

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 19th May 2014

The link between demand and profits, and consequently employment, is visible in the works of the classical economists and Marx. In this blog post, we set out the link between these variables by way of assessing the contributions of David Harvey and Robert Brenner, as narrated and presented by Benjamin Kunkel in his 2014 collection of essays, all previously published – Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Recent Crisis (and not on the basis of Harvey’s and Brenner’s original texts).

Karl Marx has already presented us with the possible reasons for the occurrence of crises in capitalist economies. Kunkel treats these crises as profitability crises (pp. 34-6); they can occur because of (1) profit squeeze, (2) a rising organic composition of capital, and (3) underconsumption. A capitalist crisis causes activity levels to drop and results in wide-spread unemployment. The three factors mentioned above reduce the profits of capitalists, consequently affecting their decision to produce and therefore adversely affecting their decisions to employ workers and purchase capital goods. The first – a profit squeeze, is self-explanatory, but its causes need not be. A rise in real wages, ceteris paribus, leads to a decline in the rate of profit. The organic composition of capital, according to Marx, refers to the ratio between constant capital and variable capital. Constant capital refers to the investment expenditure on plant, machinery, tools and other constant/fixed capital. Variable capital refers to the investment expenditure relating to the workers – wage costs, training costs and the like. When the ratio of constant to variable capital rises, or equivalently, when the organic composition of capital rises, the rate of profit (the ratio between profits and capital advanced) falls. The third cause is underconsumption, by workers. This occurs, by definition, since the value of the real wage is less than the value they add to the commodity. In Marxian terms, this difference measures the surplus-value that the capitalists extract from the workers.

I

Strong bargaining power on the side of the workers can generate a rise in the real wages; although, note that the terms of agreement are usually set in money wages. The rising organic composition of capital is not a law, but a contingent proposition. As for underconsumption, if workers’ wages are just sufficient for their survival, it can result in goods lying unsold and therefore affect capitalist profits. To put it differently, there arises a gap between aggregate supply and aggregate demand. This, according to Harvey, places a ‘limit to capital’.

What can possibly eliminate underconsumption, a facet of capitalism, a consequence of positive capitalist profits and a cause of economic crisis? Harvey points out that it is credit which eliminates this cause, at least, temporarily.

‘Any increase in the flow of credit to housing construction, for example, is of little avail today without a parallel increase in the flow of mortgage finance to facilitate housing purchases. Credit can be used to accelerate production and consumption simultaneously.’

(Harvey; as quoted on p. 32)

But, Kunkel cautions us that even if credit can fund the required aggregate demand, changes in income distribution brought about by the struggle between workers and capitalists will affect the aggregate equilibrium, and will render it unstable.

‘If there exists a theoretical possibility of attaining an ideal proportion, from the standpoint of balanced growth, between the amount of total social income to be reinvested in production and the amount to be spent on consumption, and if at the same time the credit system could serve to maintain this ratio of profits to wages in perpetuity, the antagonistic nature of class society nevertheless prevents such a balance from being struck except occasionally and by accident, to be immediately upset by any advantage gained by labor or, more likely, by capital.’ (p. 37)

It is not entirely clear what mechanisms and processes Kunkel is referring to when he makes the above claim about income distribution rendering the equilibrium unstable. Indeed, if the available credit is not sufficient to counter the depressed wages and high profits, the aggregate equilibrium will be unstable.

Another route through which capitalist crisis can be postponed is via long-term infrastructural projects. ‘Overaccumulated capital, whether originating as income from production or as the bank overdrafts that unleash fictitious values, can put off any immediate crisis of profitability by being drawn off into long-term infrastructural projects, in an operation Harvey calls a “spatio-temporal fix”’ (p. 39). Here again, it is contingent on the extent to which the workers gain from the surplus generated by these projects, both in the short and long-term. For example, the employment guarantee programme in India creates infrastructure as well as provides employment and wage income.

‘So what then are the “limits to capital”’ (p. 41)? ‘Keynesians complain of an insufficiency of aggregate demand, restraining investment. The Marxist will simply add that this bespeaks inadequate wages, in the index of a class struggle going the way of owners rather than workers’ (p. 43). Inadequate wages, as previously indicated, does generate demand deficiency. To that extent, Marx’s and Keynes’s account of capitalist crises are very similar.

Kunkel points out the role of environmental degradation, a consequence of capitalist drive for profits, in capitalist crises. ‘Already three-concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere, loss of nitrogen from the soil, and the overall extinction rate for nonhuman species-have been exceeded. There are impediments to endless capital accumulation that future crisis theories will have to reckon with.’ This can be easily integrated into the theories of output and of growth, as Ricardo’s diminishing returns to land, has been. Environmental depletion poses constraints on the supply side primarily and for economic growth, positive capital accumulation is necessary. Therefore, environmental degradation poses a strong constraint on the supply side of the economy.

II

Robert Brenner made a ‘frontal attack on the idea of wage-induced profit squeeze’ (p. 87). As Kunkel puts it, ‘increased competition exerted relentless downward pressure on profits, resulting in diminished business investment, reduced payrolls, and-with lower R&D expenditure-declining productivity gains from technological advance. The textbook result of this industrial tournament would have been the elimination of less competitive firms. But the picture drawn by The Economics of Global Turbulence is one of “excessive entry and insufficient exit” in manufacturing’ (p. 87). In other words, the profit squeeze was not wage-induced.

Marx’s realization crisis finds a mention in Kunkel’s essay on Brenner too. ‘If would-be purchasers are held back by low wages, then the total mass of commodities cannot be unloaded at the desired price. Capital fails to realize its customary profits, and accumulation towards stagnation’ (p. 91). This is the crucial point. Capital has to realize its customary profits, a magnitude which includes a return on risk and undertaking (a return on enterprise, if you like) and the rate of interest. Capital that is invested in a riskier enterprise is expected to provide higher returns. The search for demand (or markets) is not new. Mercantilism was precisely that. More recently, ‘[i]n Germany and Japan, and then in China, catering to external markets won out over nurturing internal demand’ (p. 94) However, currently, there are signs of a reversal as external demand is falling, and net-exporting countries are reorienting towards domestic demand (p. 95).

But, what is to be done? According to Kunkel, ‘[g]lobal prosperity will come about not through further concessions from labor, or the elimination of industrial overcapacity by widespread bankruptcy, but through the development of societies in which people can afford to consume more of what they produce, and produce more with the entire labor force at work’ (p. 98). Kunkel rightly advocates better wages and the full-employment of labour. For, it is only such a society which can afford its citizens with a dignified and economically comfortable life. As a matter of fact, ‘[m]ore leisure or free time, not less, would be one natural-and desirable-consequence of having more jobs’ (p. 103). A similar call is visible in Robert & Edward Skidelsky’s How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life published in 2012. We urgently need an economic architecture where goods can flow easily across regions, workers earn good wages, capital earns its customary profits, labour is fully employed and the environment is respected. In working towards this goal, it is necessary to possess an accurate understanding of the link between demand, profits and employment.

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Posted in Economic Crisis, Economics, Employment, Karl Marx, Macroeconomics, Prices, Unemployment, Wages | No Comments »

Is Marx (Ir)relevant?

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 1st February 2012

Karl Marx (1818-1883) is an important figure in most social sciences. His works have been translated into several languages. One might not agree with his views, but he cannot be ignored. Some love him. A lot more hate him. Note that the like and dislike are not targeted at his works, which are seldom read, like most ‘classics’. Having recently read the first part of Theories of Surplus-Value, 3 volumes of Capital and a discussion with a friend who works closely with Indian realities has resulted in the following blog post.

Classical political economy, according to Marx, begins with William Petty in Britain and Boisguilbert in France and ends with Ricardo in Britain and Sismondi in France. In the Theories of Surplus-Value, Marx mainly scrutinises the works of these classical political economists. However, Marx does not provide an overall summary of their entire work but focusses on his central question: how did these authors conceptualise and comprehend value? Particularly, he discusses the why and how of classical political economists theorising of ‘appearances’ while forgetting the ‘essence’. In any case, Marx does not have the last word on the theoretical framework on the classical political economists. Hence, reading Marx motivates one to go forward and read the works of the classical political economists.

But, why read Marx or the classical political economists? They did not write in the 20th century. The world is different today. Facts have changed. Are their works relevant anymore? Firstly, ‘progress’ or growth of scientific theories does not follow a linear path; the path could be non-linear. The implication is that what was considered unscientific in the past can resurface (with adjustments) with a greater explanatory strength and challenge the contemporary ‘scientific’ theories, at least in principle. For institutional reasons, this might never happen; mainstream journals, scientific associations, university teaching and textbooks are, what I label, institutions in this context. Thus, a priori, there exists no scientific basis for not reading the works of classical political economists, Marx and other economists. Secondly, a distinction needs to be made between theory and fact. A theory is not (necessarily) a fact. A fact is never a theory. A theory is general while a fact is specific. Theory tells us a way of thinking about facts – in identifying them, classifying them and ascribing relations to them. The classical political economists as well as Marx theorised a capitalistic economy; in this regard, the rate of profit was taken to be uniform across industries through the process of competition. It is obvious and very clear that in a country like India, which cannot be classified as capitalist or non-capitalist (perhaps, 10% capitalist), using Marx’s theoretical apparatus blindly is going to result in perverse outcomes. The reason for choosing 10% and not 20% is because the share of the organised sector in the GDP is 10%. Maybe, Marx’s theory has certain insights to offer to the 10% of India. The remaining has been visualised as pre-capitalist. (Remember the mode of production debates.) But, one wonders whether this is the desirable (or even scientific) way of characterising the remaining 90%. When reading an author’s work, it is not solely for the theory. Often, it is for the method too. There has been and will be many books and articles on Marx’s method. But, whatever the agreements and disagreements are, there are always fresh possibilities. Given this, not reading Marx seems unscientific!

Often, the works of classical political economists and Marx are confined to the class rooms of history of economic thought (HET). Teaching their works in HET classes is not considered irrelevant. One reason for this thought arises from the linear view of scientific progress. The other, perhaps, has to do with the pride every generation possesses over their ancestors in terms of knowledge. Although, this ‘pride’ is not solely our own creation but it has been passed on to us. It is perhaps our responsibility to check whether we have been taught the ‘correct’ theories and facts about our world. This is all the more reason to assess the foundations of our current beliefs and theories. HET is one way to do this, in economics.

Marx has interesting insights to offer contemporary economics on property rights, labour conditions, economic crises, concentration of markets (inter-linked markets?) and so on. To conclude, reading Marx is important to an economist. Secondly, his observations regarding the ‘evil’ nature of capitalism can be addressed so as to improve the existing laws, institutions, markets, morals and values. After all, the objective and aspirations of scientific knowledge is to better the lives of all.

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Posted in Economic Philosophy, Economics, Economics Education/Teaching, History of Economic Thought, India, Karl Marx, Theory of Surplus Value | 3 Comments »

Pierangelo Garegnani (1930 – 2011)

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 25th October 2011

On October 14, 2011, heterodox economics (in particular, classical economics) lost one of its warriors. This post attempts to summarise some of his key contributions towards economic theory. First and foremost, he was an economic theorist par excellence. He contributed to the famous (now, almost forgotten) capital theory debates in 1960s along with Piero Sraffa and Joan Robinson on his side and Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow on the other. Alongside others, he pointed out logical flaws in the marginalist conception of capital and its devastating effects on equilibrium. Basically, marginalist theory of value and distribution (in modern parlance, microeconomic theory) was shown to be logically inconsistent. Today, these debates hardly ever appear in economics textbooks because marginalist or neoclassical economics invented inter-temporal equilibrium to take care of capital-theoretic issues. Moreover, history of economic thought has been sidelined – through famous graduate economic programs and by preaching that history of economic thought is of no use to a “practical” economist, both in academia and in business.

Garegnani made significant contributions to the revival of classical economics on the foundations laid down by Piero Sraffa. In particular, Garegnani, through various journal articles (in Italian and English) resurrected the works of old classical economists – mainly Smith, Ricardo and Marx. More than Sraffa, perhaps, it is Garegnani who has aided the revival and resurrection of classical economics. His command over the history of economic thought with a special focus on old classical economists and ‘old’ and ‘new’ neoclassical economists (Walras, Wicksell, Hicks, etc) is evident from his clear exposition of their analytical structure.

Like ‘old’ classical economists, Garegnani’s interest has been to explain growth dynamics of an economy. This, he believed and also demonstrated that it is possible by drawing insights from Keynes and working on a classical (Sraffian) foundation. In this regard, Garegnani and his friends-colleagues-students have been quite successful in their analysis of capacity utilization, supermultiplier, role of wages, profits being a monetary phenomenon and so on.

Given the massive contributions made by Garegnani, it has been an honour for me to have been introduced to his work during my Masters in Economics at University of Hyderabad. It is one of the few Universities, in India and possibly, in the world, which still teaches classical economics as a distinct approach to understanding contemporary economies. I hope that more Universities begin to recognise the benefits of a pluralist education and start teaching classical economics as a distinct subject.

Others

Robert Vienneau  Susan Pashkoff  Francesco Saraceno  Tyler Cowen  David Ruccio  Matias Vernengo

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Posted in Adam Smith, Classical Economics, Classical Political Economy, Economics, Karl Marx, Keynes, Krishna Bharadwaj, Neoclassical Economics, Paul Samuelson, Pierangelo Garegnani, Piero Sraffa, Richard Cantillon, Sraffa, Sraffian Economics | 1 Comment »