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Saturday, January 29, 2011


Before launching into what will undoubtedly be a very long and complex discussion of Marx's theories, I thought I might pause just for a day to catch my breath, make an observation, respond to several [but not all] of the comments, and devote a few paragraphs to a minor matter that is not, strictly speaking, part of my story, but is nonetheless interesting.

So, taking a deep breath, first the observation. As I have mentioned on this blog, I am currently teaching a course at Duke University in a Learning in Retirement program there called the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute [OLLI], on Plato's REPUBLIC. This is a program that caters mostly to seniors like myself, and is taught by volunteers, of whom I am one. Last Monday, I was lecturing on Book I of the REPUBLIC. At one point in the lengthy exchange with Thrasymachus, Socrates distinguishes between the activities of a doctor or ship captain or shepherd as such, and the accidental fact that each of them, while pursuing the techne or craft of medicine, etc., also earns wages. The earning of wages is no part of the essence of the techne, he observes [and Thrasymachus agrees.] As I was explicating this passage, I suddenly realized that as I participated in the OLLI program, I was acting purely as a teacher, because I receive no wages for my teaching. Well, the same thing is true of this tutorial, and all the other tutorials and such that I have from time to time posted on my blog. Since I receive no wages for this labor, it is truly a labor of pure unadulterated pedagogy. I rather like that thought.

Now, as to Ricardo on slavery. I did not recall Ricardo discussing the subject, so I consulted my ten volume edition of the complete works and writings of Ricardo, edited by Sraffa with the assistance of none other than Maurice Dobb. In the index [which is the eleventh volume], I found only three listings under "slavery," all to speeches Ricardo gave in Parliament in 1823. It is clear from one of them that he was opposed to slavery [as were all of his circle, including his close friend James Mill, John Stuart's father], but he seems not to have been moved to discuss the subject in any systematic manner. Indeed , one of the three speeches is much more concerned with the depredations of white ants on the sugar plantations in the East Indies.

As for the matter of the mathematics, I am sure the solution of simultaneous equations was well understood in Ricardo's day, but neither he nor other economists seem to have thought to use it to analyse the vexing problems of the Labor Theory of Value. It was I think Leontieff's Input-Output analysis that first used mathematics in this way, though I may be wrong about that. Marx himself struggles in CAPITAL to analyse the subject, and gets things badly wrong, as many people have pointed out. There is actually a large specialist literature on this subject, with some people devising strategies for defending what Marx does as a sort of iterated approximation, but Marx himself pretty clearly did not conceptualize the subject in this manner. As we shall see, Marx's insights and intuitions are brilliant, but his exposition leaves a good deal to be desired in this area.

And now to the minor but interesting side note. I have been talking about Adam Smith and David Ricardo, but probably the most widely read political economist in the middle of the 19th century was John Stuart Mill. We remember Mill for his classic work ON LIBERTY, and also [if we are philosophers] for his essay UTILITARIANISM. In his own day, however, Mill was very widely known for a two volume exposition of classical Political Economy, PRINCIPLES OF POLITICAL ECONOMY, which first appeared in 1848 and went through seven editions, the last in 1871. My copy, which runs to almost 1200 pages in two volumes, is an 1897 reprint of the 5th edition, which I picked up for $2.50 in a second hand book store more than half a century ago. Book II of Mill's PRINCIPLES is called Distribution [Book I is of course Production], and Chapter iv of Book II is entitled "Of Competition and Custom." In this chapter, Mill offers an observation that is at one and the same time obvious and indisputable, but also freighted with the greatest theoretical significance. In the marketplace, he points out, competition does not always operate alone to determine the prices at which commodities exchange. Sometimes sheer custom or habit shapes consumer choices. A piece of land may have commanded a certain rent for several generations, and that fact alone will incline prospective renters to be willing to pay that rent even though competition might, working alone, drive the rent higher or lower. Those shopping for consumer goods may be influenced by a preference for a local market run by someone with whom they have established a personal relationship, even though identical goods may be available at a lower price literally next door. And so on.

One can, of course, always explain this behavior by supposing that the consumer has, and is engaged in maximizing, a utility function that takes as arguments interpersonal relations as well as market prices. But the significance of Mill's observation is this. If consumers are influenced only by price [as between two identical instances of the same good], then it is possible to calculate their behavior ex ante, not simply account for it ex post. On the basis of such ex ante or a priori calculations, one can then deduce powerful theorems about the determination of natural or equilibrium prices. That, after all, is what I did when I solved the price equations for our little corn iron books model. But if custom [or, what is in some sense irrational factors] plays a role in the determination of consumer behavior, it is impossible to incorporate it as a factor ex ante into one's calculations. The most one can do is to build dummy variables into one's equations representing the "custom" factor. Then, one can collect data about past consumer behavior -- what economists call time series -- and make a series of estimations or predictions about what values those dummy variables will take on in the future.

In short [since this is already getting too long], one can stop doing microeconomics and start doing macroeconomics. This is why, among economists, microeconomics is considered purer and classier than macroeconomics, for all that macroeconomists win Nobel Prizes too. If I may wrap this up with another reference to the REPUBLIC, macroeconomists are like the people chained to the floor of Plato's cave, predicting the shadows as they pass by on the wall where they are thrown by the fires illuminating the objects carried behind a parapet by slaves.


GTChristie said...

I have been reading all this with much interest, and I want you to know that you impress me. Thank you for all these posts, which are illuminating. I doubt you will ever turn me into a Marxist, but that doesn't matter as much as your ability to express its essentials and honestly point out its shortcomings as well as its long suits. Bravo. I am a fan of yours, Professor.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you so much. I have never been an ideologue. I am at heart a teacher, and what matters the most to me is to take difficult ideas and show them in all their simplicity and beauty so that others may appreciate their power ane elegance as I do. In my graduate seminar at UNC Chapel Hill, I will devote one week to the writings of Michael Oakeshott, who is to my way of thinking the most interesting conservative thinker since Max Weber, simply because I want my students to experience the power of his mind as I do.

Chris said...

Marx makes a similar point about professions to in the Communist Manifesto; coincidentally just caught that this morning while re-reading it.

"The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers."

formerly a wage slave said...

LIke many others, I've enjoyed (and I hope truly profited from) your blog. However, I think there's more going on in Republic, Book One, than you suggest in your brief appreciative remark.

PLEASE TAKE WHAT FOLLOWS WITH THE HEADLINE: 'for what it's worth--and if it rings hollow, please ignore"
I haven't carefully studied the book in a while, but I seem to recall that Socrates does not rule out a techne or craft (or science) of money-making, only that it would be a different art than virtue/justice or, indeed, shoe making.
In your own case, you do continue to practice the techne of money making in order to survive, even as a retired person, even if you don't do it as you are teaching.
As I write these words, I confess, I am dissatisfied with what I am saying, and fear lest you label me as a "scholar" (or would-be scholar, and therefore boring and tedious)
But I'll say one final thing, that perhaps will help:
I'm supposing that justice or virtue or a science of human good and bad differs from any techne of money makng (or shoe making or flute playing or movie making or novel writing) in that virtue (however you describe it) can't hurt you, but money-making can.

Forgive me if I speculate, but I heard your comment as something anachronistic, like: our species essence is to work, be social, not essentially to acquire money. And that just sounded to me unlike the Socratic insight I think is in Book One of Rep.
Put differently, money making lacks the intelligence that virtue or justice possess.

Again, all said under the rubric: For what it's worth.

Mark L

Michael said...

I wonder what you think about this:

I can't say I'm convinced by him, but I wonder what more informed opinions think.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Quite right about Socrates in Book I. He does say just that about money-making. I didn't want to write a whole long explication of Book I. I just wanted to say how nice it is to teach merely for the love of it.

As for the deLong stuff, I think it is what the English used to call silly clever. No, Marx does not have a duty to seek out the farm worker and pay him for the surplus labor extracted from him in the process of harvesting the head of lettuce. But Marx does have an obligation to do whatever he can to ovferthrow a capitalist economic system in which exploitation takes place, and right now, I cannot think of anyone who did more along those lines than Marx did! So give me [and him] a break.

formerly a wage slave said...

whoops! Of course your comment was an innocent one, and I fear I made too much of it.....I may be, at this point in my life, a bit cynical. I've done a variety of teaching in different settings--mostly hostile ones on account of managers or the background insecurity that comes with temporary employment or other factors it requires an act of imagination for me to see the essentially nice thing about teaching, which on my good days, I suppose I can just briefly manage to do!