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Thursday, April 29, 2021


T.J. asks the following question:  “when I (the capitalist) buy 8 hours of labor, I get more labor than is required to produce 8 hours of labor. So I get more than I pay for. But when I buy 8 bushels of corn, I only get 8 bushels of corn. Is it just that the algebra (which again, I don't understand) shows that when I buy 8 bushels of corn, I get more corn than is required to produce 8 bushels of corn? Maybe my hangup is that it just seems obvious that when I work for 8 hours, my boss makes more money from my labor than I'm going to spend housing and feeding myself, but it doesn't seem at all obvious that when I buy 8 bushels of corn, I could reproduce more than 8 bushels of corn from that input.”


The simple answer, T.J., is yes, exactly so.

Leaving aside the algebra, which I realize is for some people an obstacle, not an aid, to understanding, let us just ask this question: if it takes more than 8 bushels of corn somewhere in the economy directly or indirectly to produce 8 bushels of corn, how can the system possibly survive? In the next cycle of production, the system will have to be reduced in size and after several such reductions the system will go out of business entirely.


Intuitively, if you are measuring things in some commodity directly or indirectly required rather than in labor directly or indirectly required, the same truth is going to have to hold, namely that it will take less than one unit of any commodity required in the production process directly and indirectly to produce that unit if the system is to survive and flourish. In fact, with a little of that dreaded algebra, we can show that so long as in each cycle of production there is some physical surplus over and above what is required to run the system again at the same level of output for another cycle, then all of the labor values or corn values or iron values or X – values for any input X will have to be positive and for any X, the X – value of X will be less than one, meaning that there will be surplus X value generated in the system. What is more, and should be intuitively obvious, the X value of this physical surplus appropriated by the capitalists will exactly equal the surplus X value extracted from the direct X inputs into the system. All of those propositions that Marx intuitively grasped as true for labor turn out to be true for every input into the production process.


Danny said...

I won't bother with this one. blah blah Marx blah blah.

Danny said...

Maybe my hangup is that it just seems obvious.. ;)

Danny said...

Have you heard the rumor that real economics is interesting enough? Call it a rhetorical question.

aaall said...

Paging bitter, party of one!

Jerry Brown said...

Blah blah Danny blah blah. Danny has published many things that have affected millions of people over the past 150 years. But blah, blah Danny. Blah blah.

T.J. said...

Does labor count as part of the physical surplus? Why couldn't it be that it takes 1 unit of corn to produce 1 unit of corn, 1 unit of iron to produce 1 unit of iron, and so on but it takes less than 1 unit of labor to produce 1 unit of labor? So after a cycle of production, the output corn will have exactly reproduced the input corn, the output iron will have exactly reproduced the input iron, but we'd have surplus labor left over. Does it have something to do with the fact that every commodity is required in the production of every other commodity?

Anonymous said...

Brian said (April 28, 2021 at 9:59 AM):

Dear Professor Wolff,
This is not a response to your latest post, but rather something I thought might amuse you, if you haven't already seen it. It's from Brian Leiter, written about five years ago:
The first five laws of cyber-dynamics
First Law of Cyber-dynamics: any unmoderated comment thread will reduce the total amount of knowledge and understanding in the world in proportion to its length.
Second Law of Cyber-dynamics: any unmoderated comment thread on a post touching on politics, race or gender will degenerate into vile idiocy within the first ten comments.
Third Law of Cyber-dynamics: no off-hand comment is too trivial to not generate thousands of words of cyber-commentary.
Fourth Law of Cyber-dynamics: no off-hand comment is too benign to fail to generate offense somewhere else in cyberspace.
Fifth Law of Cyber-dynamics: any comment thread on a blog with an ideological identity will give expression to the most extreme version of that identity within the first ten comments.

In a roundabout, maybe even unsuspected sorta way, he was right ... :-)

Jerry Brown said...

T.J., generally you try to produce more than what y0u started with. A farmer that started with one ear of corn and only grew one ear of corn would be very unhappy and we would all starve if all they could manage to do was replace their inputs after adding their labor.

Magpie said...

"Why couldn't it be that it takes 1 unit of corn to produce 1 unit of corn, 1 unit of iron to produce 1 unit of iron, and so on but it takes less than 1 unit of labor to produce 1 unit of labor?"

I am no expert, but let me try an answer. Whether it's right or not, it's for you those reading to decide. Objections are wellcome.

It requires of us to step down from the highly abstract to the slightly more concrete.

To produce 1 unit of iron one needs additional iron. It goes in the shovels' used to dig up iron ore and in the wheelbarrows to take the iron ore from the mine to the iron-works, which also needs iron (machinery).

That not counting wastage. A simple explanation one may remember from high school chemistry: no chemical reaction attempted will ever yields 100% the mass of reactants predicted. Why not? Because measurements are not 100% accurate, reactants are not 100% pure. There are unwanted byproducts. You burn coal and you get both carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, plus other things, not just carbon dioxide.

In the iron case: iron ore is not homogeneous, some of it may spill from the wheelbarrow on its way to the iron-works; slags do happen, iron pieces get broken and cannot be used or just get lost or are stolen.


The point is that 1 unit of iron ore is meant as a net increase.

Note that "corn" is not exactly like iron. Why not? Because it depends on the use one makes of the "corn". One pound of corn used as seed is meant to produce more than one pound of corn, or one would not use it as seed. Just like with iron, corn is required to feed the farmers who grow corn.

It is only animal activity that can in all circumstances produce more than it requires, or it would be impossible for parents to raise dependent children. Home sapiens, humanists notwithstanding, is an animal.

Hope that helps.



"Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power." (Italics in the original)

Magpie said...


Instead of "The point is that 1 unit of iron ore is meant as a net increase."

It should read: "The point is that 1 unit of iron is meant as a net increase."

David Palmeter said...

It seems to me a mistake to equate a “unit” of iron or corn with a “unit” of labor. Iron and corn are physical objects that can be measured, e.g., by weight. Labor is a performance, an activity. It can’t be measured in the same way. We may say that A and B both put one hour’s worth of labor into the production of iron or corn, but an hour of A’s production may produce more or less iron or corn than an hour of B’s.

In baseball, a “unit” of labor may be a single at bat. In his unit, Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals has better than a three in 10 chance of getting a hit. My chances of getting a hit against major league pitching (or minor league pitching for that matter) are zero. The most likely outcome would be a strike out in three pitches.

Anonymous said...


Sometimes, no units of labor yield surplus results.

When Bob Uecker was asked how he caught a knuckle ball, he replied: I let it bounce, roll to a stop, then pick it up.

T.J. said...

Jerry Brown,

I don't think that's the answer. The inputs aren't just the inputs for the farmer, they're the inputs for the whole system. So the corn input includes all the corn necessary to feed all of the workers who are laboring in all of the other sectors. So if the system exactly reproduced its inputs, it would produce exactly as much food as was required for the labor input into the system (plus corn for children, just like you would factor repair costs into the cost of machinery) along with seed corn, ethanol, and whatever else corn is used for.

Richard Lewis said...

I realize the problem with the 'deductive' interpretation of the LTV. But surely Marx was also trying to make a simple, intuitive point - that it is 'easier' to squeeze surplus value out of labor than out of corn. The reason being that labor is subject to normative pressure, threats of force, ideology, etc, whereas corn isn't.

Perhaps we could call that the 'idiot's labor theory of value' but it seems intuitively right. Btw, Paul Mason recently tried to defend the LTV in his excellent book 'Postcapitalism' - arguing that the information tech revolution really is affecting capitalist profits because ubiquitous information - which is abundant and copy-able - cannot be as easily 'squeezed' for value as human labor. When your coffee shop is fully automated and so are your rivals' coffee shops - the potential for squeezing out surplus diminishes compared with when you hired 3 baristas.

marcel proust said...

I am at least a bit confused, but will try to express what I am confused about as clearly as possible.

1) All economic systems in which there is a reliable surplus, all that are more advanced than the simplest (i.e., than hunting & gathering, pastoralism and subsistence agriculture), have involved exploitation. The exploitation consists of how the surplus is distributed.

2) What distinguishes capitalism from previous economic systems is not only all the items and characteristics listed in chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto but also the way in which the surplus is distributed: apparently through free exchange in the market. In earlier regimes, the role of power disparities in the distribution of the surplus was obvious and not denied, although the dominant ideology always rationalized it in one way or another as natural and appropriate. Capitalist ideology hides and obscures these power disparities and, when it is impossible to deny them, explains them away as irrelevant to distribution of the surplus. So long as the market is allowed to operate freely and competitively (i.e., with neither monopoly or market power nor government interference with prices and quantities in the market), relative power has, according to this ideology, no effect on market outcomes (or equivalently, distribution of the surplus, although even that idea, "distribution of the surplus" is obscured).

This suggests to me that within the pure sphere of production and exchange, so long as there is a surplus, factors of production will necessarily be exploited. Even within a socialist/anarchist/co-operative economy, so long as factors of production are paid for working ("from each according to their ability, to each according to their work" as either St. Paul or Marx wrote), then there will be a surplus to be distributed, and there will be exploitation of the factors of production. Co-operative game theory and the notion of the core has something to say about how the surplus should be distributed; fairness can come into play. However, the existence of surplus and the fact that, mathematically, each and every factor of production is exploited suggest that the notion of exploitation is a red herring and not at all useful.

Jerry Brown said...

I'm sorry TJ- I guess I don't understand the question. It can be difficult trying to answer when you don't understand the question. Reminds me of a great history teacher I had in high school. His exams were always in the form of a three paragraph statement where you first had to figure out what the heck he was asking you to write an essay in response to. Loved the class but hated the exams. He became ill at the end of that year so for the final exam we took a standardized test, I think it was the previous year's AP college exam. Which was a huge relief to me since I was able to ace that and salvage a decent grade. Which, I remember, completely surprised my teacher who was in the habit of giving me D's for my efforts on all the previous essay type exams.

Well I guess none of that helps you answer your question. Perhaps you could rephrase it and I could try again. As long as no one is grading my answers...

Jerry Brown said...

But Marcel, could it make a difference if those who have power are able to avoid having the factors of production they control being exploited by others, while those who have little power are not, almost by definition?

jeffrey g kessen said...

Great Comment thread. Monty Python could not have done it better.

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