Undergraduate Economist

Perspectives of an economics student

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 Foreword to Keynes’s General Theory

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 5th September 2012

Published in 1936, The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money remains a valuable book for both economists and policy makers. The recent financial crisis and the ongoing economic crisis have revived popular interest in this 1936 classic. The year 2009 saw the publication of two concise books on Keynes by two eminent scholars, Skidelsky and Clarke; an earlier blog post reviewed both their works. Not much will be said about the author – John Maynard Keynes, in the following paragraphs. The main objective of this blog post, as the title suggests, is to provide a foreword to The 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 rapidly expanding market for economics textbooks has, to a significant extent, substituted the reading of original works. In this environment, where our understanding of Keynes is based upon what Blanchard, Branson, Mankiw or Romer write, the following blog post strives to remain faithful to Keynes unlike the IS-LM version of Keynes proposed by Hicks and popularised by these textbooks. Keynes labelled Ricardo, Marshall and Pigou as Classical economists; this definition is not adhered to in the present blog post for Classical economics is a system of economic theory (to which Ricardo belongs) which is distinct from and a rival to Marginalist economics of which Marshall and Pigou are important members (see Thomas 2011 for more).

For Marshall, Pigou and marginalist economists of today, unemployment is a transitory phenomenon caused by ‘imperfections’ in the operation of the market forces. In their theoretical world characterised by competition, full employment is the ‘general’ case. However, Keynes demonstrated that this notion was based on assumptions contrary to the real world such as flexibility of money wages, absence of store of value function of money and rate of interest as a real phenomenon capable of equilibrating savings and investment and hence can only be considered a ‘special’ case. As he writes, ‘there has been a fundamental misunderstanding of how in this respect the economy in which we live actually works’ (p. 13). Opposed to this state of affairs, Keynes argued that the ‘general’ situation in an economy with competitive markets is the prevalence on unemployment. In other words, the central purpose of Keynes’s work is to demonstrate that unemployment is the usual situation in a competitive economy.

The main subject matter of The General Theory is the determination of aggregate employment and income or ‘the theory of output as a whole’ (Preface, p. vi). This needs to be seen against the then prevalent mode of economic analysis which was largely Marshallian in nature. Marginal productivity theory along with the principle of substitution was employed to understand the allocation of a given level of output; under conditions of competition, in equilibrium, full employment was (and still is) expected to prevail. And questions concerning the determination of the level of output were carried out within a theory whose primary subject matter was allocation, and not determination, of output levels. (On this, see especially Keynes’s preface to the German edition of his 1936 book.)

Marginalist economics, in the 1900s, looked up to the works of Marshall, and Pigou.  Keynes was brought up on a large dose of their works. Theories of production concentrated on determining the output levels in individual markets, and more often on allocation of output. Similarly, theories of distribution examined the allocation of income to workers and capitalists. Policy recommendations were made on the basis of such theories. The remedy to unemployment, according to Pigou and other orthodox economists, consisted in lowering workers’ wages. Economics certainly did not have an apparatus or a framework to study the ‘level of output as a whole’, or macroeconomics as it is called today. Besides output levels, Keynes also stressed the role played by money in ‘real’ analysis – the examination of income, employment, investment, consumption and saving. Rate of interest, according to Keynes, is a monetary phenomenon which depends on liquid preference. In short, the scope of his work remained the same as that of earlier economists – the study of wealth. Today, economics has broadened its scope to include any subject which can be examined by employing some form of the cost-benefit analysis. (See Malthus: The Scope of Political Economy)

Being brought up in the marginalist Marshallian tradition, Keynes attempted to completely break away from their method. In the preface to the German edition, he makes his desire explicit: ‘It was in this [Marshallian] atmosphere that I was brought up. I taught these doctrines myself and it is only within the last decade that I have been conscious of their insufficiency. In my own thought and development, therefore, this book represents a reaction, a transition away from the English classical (or orthodox) tradition.’ However, his attempt was not entirely successful. This is especially visible in his analysis of investment, where he develops the ‘marginal efficiency of capital’; much has been written on this in the context of the capital theory debates. The role he assigned to ‘expectations’ and the links to investment levels have been considered an improvement of the economists’ toolkit and consequently seen as an improvement in the capacity of economic theory to understand reality.

The aim of this blog post has been mainly to put The General Theory in the 1936 context, where Marshallian economics reigned supreme. Today, central governments, central banks and policy makers employ macroeconomic theory to understand the real world and to frame policies which increase output levels, stabilise prices and ensure financial stability. However, majority of these theories remain rooted in the orthodox tradition (variants of Marshall, Walras, Pigou and others resurface in the form of DSGE, New Classical macroeconomics or New Keynesian macroeconomics) which Keynes broke away from. Truly, The General Theory published in 1936 remains an economics classic, which is of enduring value to those who find terrible problems with the current orthodoxy!

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Posted in Economic Thought, Economics, Employment, Keynes, Macroeconomics, Malthus, Marginalist economics, Neoclassical Economics | 4 Comments »