Posts Tagged ‘Sraffa’

Hume's Abstract of His Treatise

Thursday, 14 December 2017

In an attempt to promote his work A Treatise on Human Nature (1738), David Hume anonymously wrote and in 1740 had published a booklet, An Abstract of a Book Lately Published, Entituled, A Treatiſe of Human Nature, &c. It went nearly unnoticed and unrecognized until republished in 1938, with an introduction by John Maynard Keynes and Piero Sraffa. That edition was reprinted in 1965. The introduction may still be protected by copyright, as may be images of the reset text.

In any event, I did not find any editions of the booklet itself freely available on-line; so I have created one.

Well, actually, two editions. The first retains the use of long ess (‘ſ’) and the convention by which longer passages were quoted, which was a matter of prefixing a quotation mark to each line which continued a quotation from the previous line. The second replaces the long esses with now ordinary lower-case esses, and uses block quotation where now conventional, though the second version otherwise preserves the spelling and punctuation of the original.

The Abstract is about 6,500 words. The booklet was just thirty two pages, one of which was a title page and one of which was blank. My transcriptions come each to less than nine pages of twelve-point type.

Addendum (2017:12/15): After I posted my transcriptions, a Google search on an Android tablet returned a link not previously returned by a Google search on my Linux box, to a transcription by Carl Mickelsen lacking the original preface contained in the booklet, and with the remaining text extensively editted to change spellings, punctuation, italicization, &c I also found a wholesale paraphasing of the Abstract by Jonathan Bennett, with changes far more extensive than the reader is led to believe


Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The extended quiescence of this 'blog has largely been an artefact of my limiting of various activities as I bore-down on critiquing Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities, a work of heterodox political economy by Piero Sraffa. The task has been thoroughly unpleasant, because there is so very much wrong with his work and because he writes in an obscure manner. At the same time, I have been dealing with depression intensified by personal circumstances. Had I allowed myself to step away from the project more than I did, I might never have finished it.

I have not, indeed, finished it; but, on Wednesday morning, I completed a first draft of the article. That draft is now in the hands of some of the other economists whom I know. (Naturally, I have since found things that I want to change, though none of these represent a major issue.) So I think that I will be back to writing more entries here.

One of the economists who has graciously said that he would take a look at the article (not-withstanding that it is monstrous in size!) asked me what motivated my writing of it.

Over many years, I have repeatedly been annoyed by encounters with those who draw upon PoCbMoC. More recently, I have been concerned by increased popular support for administrating economies (which support happens to be egalitarian or quasi-egalitarian); and this book is part of the infrastructure of the experts who defend such administration.

Further, at the time that I finally began actually working on this article, I felt stalled-out in my paper on the axiomata of qualitative probability. (That paper was and is a rat's nest, in which the basic propositions are not currently each perfectly orthogonal to all others.) In a sense, then, this article on Sraffa's book was intended as a break, though I quickly discovered that the task was going to be far more onerous than I had presumed.

Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities is the central text of neo-Ricardian economics, and a core text of post-Keynesian economics; it is also an important source for a variant form of Marxism that would abandon the labor theory of value. If I can get my article published in a reputable journal, that publication will eventually be the death of neo-Ricardianism and of the aforementioned variant of Marxism; I don't know enough about post-Keynesianism to know how well they might do without PoCbMoC. Some of my criticisms are relatively minor, but some of them strike at the heart of the work.

(It took rather a long time to develop my article, but reading it offers the impression a nearly continuous rain of blows, some dreadful.)

I say eventually because I wouldn't expect the present admirers to acknowledge how hard they'd been hit, but I'd expect a virtual end to the winning of converts. I don't know that I can find a journal to publish the article because

  • it is quite long;
  • the mainstream of economists are unfamiliar with PoCbMoC so that
    • editors and reviewers may think it insufficiently significant, and
    • those reviewers most likely to feel sufficiently competent to examine my article are admirers of Sraffa.

I intend never again to pore over a work, even as short as PoCbMoC, when it is discernibly crack-pot. As I told a friend, I have been doing my time on the cross here; let someone else go after other such thinkers. I am capable of original work of significance, and that is how I intend to spend my remaining time qua economist.

This 'blog was begun as I left LiveJournal, appalled by its evolving policies under its second and then third owners. One might reasonably conceptualize this 'blog as a continuation of that which I had at LJ, and some of the entries of this 'blog are recyclings of entries from the earlier 'blog.

None-the-less, this 'blog has become very different from its predecessor. LiveJournal is a social-networking site; part of the reason that it has withered is that its users migrated to more successful social-networking sites. My present 'blog doesn't work that way. I have recurring readers, but there's nothing much like the Friends feed of LJ or of Facebook. There is no centralized connector of interests (as on LJ). I have regular readers, but they are likely to use an RSS aggregator (such as Flipboard) and less likely to comment (especially if they are using such an aggregator). I get far more irregular visitors, who are here by way of Google (or of some other search service), grabbing some information, and not so much as visiting any page here other than their entry pages.

So it doesn't feel appropriate to offer mundanities of the sort that I would relate to a neighbor or to a friend on the telephone. My public entries tend to be things that I imagine strangers would appreciate reading. The restricted entries (basically accessible to friends who followed me as I migrated from LJ) are almost entirely personal; but a reader is required to make a special effort to access them, so they are not about ordinary events; they are usually very personal.

With entries to this 'blog thus typically requiring more thought, there are generally fewer of them, and the 'blog becomes dormant when I cannot — or believe that I should not — give thought to those entries.

The State of My Paper on Sraffa

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Piero Sraffa's Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities has 96 sections and four appendices. I've critiqued most of the first 85 sections, though I have for now skipped a few that draw-out conclusions from methods that I have shown to be fatally flawed. Along the way, I've also dealt with three of the appendices, the remaining one of which is bibliographical.

The final 11 sections that I've not discussed nor yet carefully read are concerned with what economists call land (not only space but resources such as ore) and with the significance of switching in methods of production. That last part is the most noted contribution from Sraffa, and widely considered to have merit across various schools of thought, though it has also been asserted that the contribution is not as novel as some have claimed. I withhold judgment until I go through it carefully.

The material over which I have so far pored is of no marginal value. I have come to loathe each resumption of my effort. But Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities is the core text of the neo-Ricardians, a central text of the Post-Keynesians (who have a significant academic and political foot-print in the UK), and the point of departure for an important variant of Marxism. So I should steel myself and complete the task.

After I get a first draft of the actual analysis done, before I write the other parts of the paper, I will begin making copies of the version in-progress available to those who can read these entries. And, after I have a more fully reälized working version, I might unrestrict my entries about this project, though that publicizing might wait upon my finding a journal that agrees to publish it.

Slavery, Slavery, and the Political Left

Monday, 2 November 2015

While the word slavery gets used in many ways, its core meaning is that of a personal condition of being property of another person or of a group of persons

However, there are recurring attempts to redefine slavery, insisting that a person who reaped only subsistence from his or her labor were by definition a slave. Now, this proposed definition is really orthogonal to any proper definition.

  • On the one hand, a person only reaps subsistence when living with a minimal technological infrastructure in a world of markèd scarcity. Much of humankind for most of history lived with little or no production above surplus, regardless of whether someone else were making ownership claims against them.
  • In some cases, people have had lives of relative material comfort, and yet would have been tortured or killed by their masters had they sought different employment.

(Compounding the problem with the redefinition, people who are consuming commodities far in excess of their needs for survival like to redefine subsist to include various comforts, such as electronic entertainment.)

Perhaps most of the people who abuse the world slave in this manner do so thoughtlessly; but it ties-together with an aspect of left-wing thought to afford them a significant evasion, deceiving others and deceiving themselves. That aspect is a resistence to acknowledging a relationship between wage-rates and the amount of labor employed in an economy.

One sees this failure in present support for an increase in statutory minimum wages. What these laws really say, to put things quite simply — yet perfectly truthfully — is that if an employer or would-be employer is unwilling or unable to employ a worker at or above the statutory minimum, then the employer must fire the worker, or not hire the worker in the first place. Most advocates presume that the employer will neither fire nor refrain from hiring, as if demand for labor were perfectly inflexible.

A rather pure expression of this dissociation of wage-rates from labor employment is found in the economic model of Piero Sraffa.[1] Sraffa's work is utterly unknown to most lay-people, and unfamiliar to most economists, but to economists on the far left it is an important benchmark, exactly because it claims so much of what they want to claim. However, its persuasive success is largely a matter of subscribers failing to note or to acknowledge a great deal implicit in the model. Perhaps most remarkably, in his model, the very same amount of labor is produced and consumed with absolute disregard for the wage-rate. That is to say that workers deliver the same labor (imagined as a scalar quantity) whether they are offered literally nothing in return (not even subsistence), or all of production is given to them as wages (with the same wage-rate for each worker).

When I look at the Sraffan model, I see workers behaving as if they are slaves. When their wages provide them no more than sustenance, they are as miserable slaves; when their wages provide them less than sustenance, they are as dying slaves; when their wages provide them far more than sustenance, they are as materially comfortable slaves. What makes them seem to be slaves is that they never exercise, and thus appear not to have, any freedom of choice in where they work nor in how hard they work.

(In those states of the United States that allowed private ownership of slaves, slaves were expected to deliver some fixed quota to their owners. They were not typically offered rewards for exceeding these quotas; they were punished, sometimes horrifically, for failing to meet them. I know of no other way, in the real word, to get the sort of labor production that Sraffa describes.)

In Sraffa's model, whatever production does not go to workers, goes to the owners of the other productive resources — essentially to the capitalists.[2] If one embraces Sraffa's model or something very much like it, and if one waves-away the proper meaning of slavery and instead uses it to mean one who is paid no more than sustenance, then it is easy to insist that, in a system that most favors a distinct class of capitalists, workers would be slaves, whereäs alternatives decreasingly favorable to such capitalists move workers ever further away from slavery. And if one imagines the workers getting an ever greater share exactly as production is administrated on behalf of the worker, then the movement away from slavery is a movement towards socialism.

However, if one continues to accept a model along the lines of Sraffa, yet restores the proper meaning of slavery, then one begins to see one why it had been doubly convenient to redefine the term. Because, in imagining a world in which workers never, one way or another, exercise freedom of choice in labor regardless of how production is distributed, the left has come perilously close to suggesting that workers, under socialism, would be slaves.

The underlying truth is that labor is one of the means of production. If an economy is fully socialized, then the potential worker must be employed however and wherever the best interests of the community as a whole are served, and his or her interests count no more in this decision than do those of anyone else.

This grim principle has repeatedly been illustrated in communities that have attempted a very high degree of socialism. Sometimes the attempt has been hijacked by leaders with less that sincere interest in communal well-being, but these leaders were able to make the populace their slaves because socialism required slavery of the populace. Trotsky's observation that

The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced with a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.[3]

was true under Stalin because it or something like it would, as a practical matter, have been true under any fully realized socialism.

Meanwhile, as much as many people living in more market-oriented economies like to imagine themselves as slaves to their employers, they're fully aware that these employers cannot send agents to recapture them should they quit their jobs. To the extent that any group of persons other than ourselves exercises such ownership over us, that group is the state — the very institution usually entrusted to effect socialistic measures.

A movement towards socialism is a movement towards slavery, rather than away from it, and if one is going to bring the subject of slavery into an honest defense of socialism against all alternatives, then it is necessary somehow to make a case for slavery.

[1] The Production of Commodities by Commodities; Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory (1960).

[2] Note how advocates of higher statutory minimum wages point with outrage at those who amass great wealth while paying workers less that some proposed statutory minimum wage, as if there were a zero-sum game being played between employer and employee.

[3] The Revolution Betrayed, ch 11 Whither the Soviet Union? § 2 The Struggle of the Bureaucracy with the Class Enemy.

A Side-Paper on Sraffa

Friday, 7 August 2015

I've not been in the proper frame-of-mind to work upon the articles that previously occupied me, so I've instead been working on a paper that I'd been meaning to write for years. Its working title is The Begged Questions in Mr. Sraffa's Theory of Price.

Piero Sraffa is notable for a number of things. He was a formidable critic of Marshallian economic theory. He identified serious problems in the formulation of von Hayek's original presentation of capital theory, at a pivotal juncture during the struggle between the Austrian School and Lord Keynes. Sraffa later identified a significant error in the capital theory of the mainstream of American Keynesianism. He was a behind-the-scenes influence upon the thinking of various economists such as Joan Robinson, and of Wittgenstein. He edited the critical edition of the works of David Ricardo.

He also wrote a short book, Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities; Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory, that attempted to restore the position of pre-marginalist, anti-subjectivist thinking on political economy. He and his close followers are known as neo-Ricardian because their work has so much of the flavor of Ricardo and of his followers.

Neo-Ricardian thinking heavily influences the so-called Post-Keynesians (one of many different flavors of economic thought that draw upon some interpretation of Keynes's work) and many Marxists look to Sraffa's work as a serious challenge or as a source for revision of Marxian economic theory.

Sraffa's book has been out-of-print in the United Kingdom and in the United States for many years; the most recent printing of which I know was in 1983. However, copies command a significant premium, and new, expensive books about his book or otherwise about Sraffa's economic theories come out fairly often. So, though the size of Sraffa's following doesn't seem to be much growing, it also doesn't seem to be much shrinking.

But, well, his theory of price determination doesn't simply go off the rails; it is never on them. For any decent economist, it would be easy to identify where Sraffa is begging essential questions, or otherwise making unacknowledged assumptions. In particular, he doesn't eliminate the subjective element from his theory of price; instead, he merely hides it, while making presumptions about it (and about production functions) that are bizarre.

Yet I don't think that I've encountered an article that has exposed these problems. The set of decent economists and the set of those who have published articles about Production of Commodities seem not to have intersected.

(I have encountered an article written by a general-equilibrium theorist, who writes like a general-equilibrium theorist. I'll eventually want to return to it to see whether, using the obscure symbolism of his people, he has in fact pointed to any of the essential problems of Sraffa's theory.)