Thursday, September 16, 2021

So, Whatever Happened To The Arizona Fraudit?

 Even though these "audits" are now apparently spreading to other states, notably Pennsylvania and maybe Wisconsin, efforts to somehow find election fraud in the presidential elections in those states in 2020, there is an odd thing that has happened that has basically dropped off the media radar screen. That is what the outcome of the initial one of these is, the "fraudit" in Arizona, authorized and financed partly with taxpayer funds by the AZ Senate.  It has dropped out of sight.

Well, after months of attention to it, with lots of money getting raised by those pushing it, and the similar folks in these other states also raising money off the fools who believe their lies, the question is what has happened?  The results were supposed to be done and available months ago.  The release date kept being put off.  The last we heard was several weeks ago when it was reported that three out of the five members of an oversight board of which we had never previously heard had gotten Covid-19.  OK.  But no new date of release was announced, and while it has been weeks so that those people presumably have either recovered or died, although maybe one is still on a ventilator. 

In any case, it is not obvious to me why any of these people being ill should be holding back a public reporting of the results. But, of course, I think we all know why this report has not been publicly reported: they got nothing.  There had been several recounts and checks on the results in Maricopa County, where the Board of Supervisors is 4-1 GOP to Dem, found that the original reported results were fully confirmed, not a single error.  So it is completely unsurprising that despite all the bizarre things the inexperienced goofballs carrying out this fraudit could find nothing. The last gasp has been people in the AZ state senate calling for the routers to be turned over. But the ballot machines were reportedly never on the internet, so routers make no difference.  We are simply left with just how long it will take for these people to finally publicly admit that their fraudit has been a giant fraud and waste of time and money that has found nothing.  This could take quite some time.

Barkley Rosser

RIP William John McGuire

 Aka "Bill" McGuire.  He started at the same time as I did in Fall 1977 as a tenure track Assistant Professor where I still am, James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, VA. We also started with Robin Grieves.  An odd coincidence was that when we were taken to the first full faculty meeting by our Depaertment Head, Howard Wilhelm, who died in January at age 94 of old age, it somehow came out that al four of us were Eagle Scouts.  I would become a good friend of both Bill's and Robin's.  I note that Bill was a Vietnam War veteran and was a macroeconomist with a PhD from UNC-Chapel Hill.

As it was, both of them would leave the department during the 1980s for different reasons.  Unfortunately, Bill had a major personal conflict with another member of the department (not me) that ended up souring him most of the department, and he had little communication with any of us after he left.  He initially went to Eastern Kentucky U. but some years later would leave academia and move to Arizona with his second wife, a former student of ours at JMU. They ran a reportedly successful private consulting firm.  But while I made some approaches to his wife to renew communication, he expressed no interest.

Anyway, I heard yesterday by email from our mutual friend, Robin, that Bill died over a year ago in July 2020.  While officially it was a heart embolism, Robin informed me that this was brought on by a bout of Covid-19.  This is the first person to have died of the pandemic that I knew personally.  I am still sorry that we did not renew communication prior to his passing.  

So, RIP Bill.

Barkley Rosser

Debt Ceiling Nonsense Yet Again - A Catch 22?

 Of course there should be no debt ceiling.  The US is the only nation to have one for absolute amounts of money (some other nations have ones tied to percents of budgets, and so forth). Even thought it is nonsensical and absurd, it has been around for over a century, a recrudescence of a deal to get funding approved by Congress for WW I in the wake of the passage in 1913 of the new amendment allowing a federal income tax. Somehow nobody in Congress or any White House has the guts to push for the ending of this thing, so it hangs on like some stinking zombie. 

Of course, for most of the time since it was passed, Congresses have been "responsible" and raised the ceiling without too much fuss, although it has been normal when different parties occupy the White House and the Congress for there to be some grumbling by people in Congress before they do the the responsible thing.  But in recent decades, while Dems in Congress have been responsible, raising debt ceiling several times for President Trump, we have on several occasions see GOPs in Congress make big stinks and force temporary government shutdowns while making demands for this or that.

The current situation is probably not that bad, but absurdity is definitely reigning.  Assuming they can keep all their people in line, especially Sen. Manchin of WV, it can probably be raised by reconciliation. But GOP Sen. McConnell is loudly declaring no GOP will support raising it, and has threatened a filibuster, although reconciliation can get around that, if all Dems agree.  However, even as he is loudly declaring not GOP support for raising the debt ceiling, he is also demanding that it be raised so that government bills get paid.  I really have no comment on this further, aside from noting that this is just further evidence on why this silly thing needs to be done away with once and for all.

Barkley Rosser

Friday, September 10, 2021

Norway’s Climate Dilemma

Carlos Joly, a finance-and-climate consultant, has a piece today on the upcoming election in Norway, one of the world’s major exporters of oil and gas.  To its credit, Norway puts its earnings in a fund to support future generations after its deposits are exhausted, known to economists as the Hartwick Rule.  That’s great for economic sustainability in Norway, but what about the threat its fossil fuel industry poses to the entire world?

Joly notes that the mainstream parties consider only domestic fossil fuel consumption, with the Labor Party proposing to go “carbon neutral” on that front by 2050.  (The neutral qualifier is highly problematic, as I show in my forthcoming book, Alligators in the Arctic and How to Avoid Them: Science, Economics and the Challenge of Catastrophic Climate Change.)  The Greens want to shut down Norway’s North Sea oil and gas operation over the coming 25 years.  Joly wants to go further and have the government instruct its oil revenue fund to divest from fossil fuels globally.

I have a different idea.  First, while the unilateral dismantling of its fossil fuel industry would be a well-intentioned step, I doubt it would have much impact on overall decarbonization.   25 years is too slow, and more importantly, the consumption of oil and gas is demand-driven, not supply constrained.  If Norway takes its fuels off the market, there will be other producers eager to take its place.  Second, simply abstaining from investing in other countries’ fossil fuel industries is unlikely to make a significant difference, largely for the same reason.  If producing oil and gas remains profitable, a shortfall in investment from some quarters will induce more from others.

What I propose instead is that Norway regard its sovereign wealth fund (officially designated as a pension fund) as an endowment whose main purpose is to finance initiatives to forestall a climate disaster.  This means devoting a fixed share to funding activist groups in key countries organizing for emergency laws to quickly reduce carbon consumption, and the rest to R&D in decarbonized energy sources.*  Meanwhile, keep the oil and gas flowing so that as large a share as possible of global fossil fuel supply is generating carbon mitigation finance.  If and when a host of national measures impose decarbonization and fossil fuel demand finally plummets, then it will be time to turn off the North Sea tap for good.

*And no, Norway’s predominate financing of REDD+, the international program for promoting forestation offsets, does neither of these and is little more than a charade—for details, again see Alligators.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Beware of "The Narrative"!

Back in 1979 philosopher Jean-François Lyotard was commissioned to do a report for the province of Quebec that turned into a book, The Postmodern Condition. I remember that book well because I read it during my graduate studies that focused on narrative analysis. A central theme of Lyotard's book was the "death of metanarratives," such as the Idea of Progress or Marx's Class Struggle as the engine of history.

Fast forward to 2021 and "The Narrative" has become a core talking point of right-wing paranoia and propaganda. Whatever they disagree with is framed as a totalitarian Narrative that makes their rebellion against it heroic. Of course a large part of this anti-narrative narrative is projection. The conformity of the GOP/Fox talking points is notorious. But that is precisely what makes their precious melodrama so effective. By first accusing their designated other of foisting a narrative, they disarm any criticism of themselves foisting a narrative.

Dr. Julie Ponesse, Professor of Ethics at University of Western has made herself a lost cause celebrity with her stand against the "narrative" of Covid-19 vaccination. Professor Ponesse builds her case against the presumably monolithic narrative by cherry-picking some research studies (that wouldn't even exist if the narrative was as monolithic as she claims) and by flagrantly misrepresenting VAERS data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. According to Professor Ponesse, she has been put on administrative leave and faces "imminent dismissal" for refusing to comply with the university's vaccine mandate. 

The National Post reports that, "Ponesse has also made questionable claims about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. In a video posted online, she calls the vaccines 'experimental.'" The CBC quotes Maxwell Smith, a bioethicist and assistant professor in the faculty of health sciences at Western and Co-Director of the Health Ethics, Law & Policy (HELP) Lab:

The strength of a position in ethics comes from the support provided via reasons & arguments, not that it's uttered by an ethicist. And her reasons used to support her position are distorted by falsehoods & concern areas about which she has no apparent expertise.

But pay no attention to the opinions of all those authorities, her employer the university, the official guide to interpreting VAERS data, and The Council of Ontario Medical Officers of Health who has strongly recommended mandatory vaccinations. They're all part of "The Narrative."

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Portland Not Burned To The Ground

 Over this past weekend I was in Portland visiting for the first time family who gathered for a reunion, with my second daughter, Caitlin, with two of my grandsons, having moved there in January from San Francisco (she is a psychiatrist with the VA system). I had been through a few times in a car, but never stopped.  So curious to check it out.  I generally liked the place and had a good time.

I also decided to check up on some of the hyperbolic claims I have heard over the past year plus or so regularly on Fox News, especially the Hannity show that I keep an eye on.  When for example denying that the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington was anything anybody should be upset about, Hannity has regularly invoked Portland in particular as a place that was "burning to the ground" in supposed antifa and Black Lives Matter riots.  It certainly is true that Portland has seen a lot of violence and plenty of demonstrations over the last year, being in fact one of the few places in the US where there are actually people who ID as being "antifa" and show up to protest, with right-wing opponents of them, such as the frequently violent Proud Boys also showing up to fight them.  On Fox I have seen plenty of burning buildings and boarded up buildings.

So I checked out the downtown.  I did not see any riots or burned down buildings.  I did see some boarded up ones, a whole two blocks worth, one of those just next to the Pioneer Courthouse, indeed a major focus of protests, and one other block a couple of blocks away.  That was pretty much it.  I saw a lot of garbage in a nearby park, and there are quite a few homeless people in Portland.  But the claims being repeated so frequently and vigorously on Fox News look to me to be just wild exaggerations.

Barkley Rosser

Monday, September 6, 2021

Happy Socially Necessary Labor Day!


Sunday, September 5, 2021

Spending and Producing

When a framing becomes ubiquitous you forget it’s a framing.  This is what popped into my head when I read a headline this morning about the infrastructure bills pending in Congress: Democrats Hit the Road to Sell Big Spending Bills as Republicans Attack.

Yes, they are proposals to spend money; that’s one way to look at it.  But they are also proposals to produce infrastructure and social services—the spending is for something.  Opponents have every reason emphasize the spending side, as in the phrase “tax and spend liberals”.  If you were thinking of buying a new car and I wanted to dissuade you, I would probably make a big deal out of how much money you would be putting out.  If I were on the other side and wanted to convince you to do it, however, I would talk about what the car could do for you and what difference it would make in your life.  The negative side of any purchase is the outlay, the positive side what you get for it.

The negative framing of government programs in terms of their monetary cost has become so dominant even a center-left publication like the NY Times routinely adopts it, and I doubt few of their readers take notice.

For a positive framing, referring to them as “infrastructure bills” is a start, but even better would be phrasing that more concretely pictures what people would stand to gain from them.  You could headline them as programs to make America more resilient to climate change, modernize transportation and communication, expand renewable energy and reduce child poverty.  I’m not sure how that can be squeezed into a page layout constraint, although if we’re talking about digital pages the constraint is a lot more flexible.

There are many ways to do it, but the starting point is to recognize the default framing is one that echoes the arguments of opponents of public action.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Analytical Bias

The world is made up of systems.  Our body is a system, or in fact a system of systems.  What we call “society” is another system of systems, as is the natural environment.  And all these meta-systems are themselves elements in even more encompassing systems that interconnect them.  

But these systems are very complex, difficult to explain or predict.  One successful strategy, which has had a revolutionary impact on how we live, is analysis.  This approach segments complex entities into smaller parts in order to study them individually.  Medical researchers don’t study the body as such, but perhaps kidney function or particular blood cells.  Social scientists may specialize in the effect of lobbyists on legislation, labor market patterns among immigrant communities or changing child-rearing norms.  Natural scientists study the viability of artificial wetlands, upwelling cycles in certain coastal zones or changes in the carbon balance of a set of tropical forest plots.  By biting off chewable portions of a much larger world, science makes it possible to achieve progress in our understanding of how things work: testable hypotheses, demonstrable evidence, causal explanation.  Analysis is the art of taking things apart, studying the pieces, and then putting them back together.

But this approach, for all its benefits, fails to capture most of the interactive effects that make a system a system.  It leads us to overstate the separateness of the things we study and observe and to understate their connectedness.  This is not an argument against thinking analytically, but for not being surprised by what this thinking fails to see so we can at least somewhat compensate for its shortcomings.

I’d like to introduce the term “analytical bias” to refer to this tendency to overlook the interconnectedness of things.  Of course, many thinkers, going back centuries, have recognized this problem; it’s the guilty conscience of analysis itself.  I’m just giving it a name.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Are Former Professors As National Leaders More Prone To Black Swan Events That Overthrow Their Governments?

 Probably not, but recent events in Afghanistan suggest an example.  This would be the sudden departure just over two weeks ago on Aug. 15 from Kabul of then Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, which triggered the sudden collapse of his government and the unexpectedly sudden takeover of Kabul by the Taliban. Even they did not see this coming.  What was the black swan event involved?  It was reported in the Aug. 29 Washington Post that Ghani was told early in the afternoon that Taliban were in his palace searching room by room for him, which led him to leave almost immediately with his family and a few aides off the roof in military helicopters for Uzbekistan where they took a plane to the UAE.  He basically informed nobody of his exit.  In fact the Taliban were not even in Kabul at the time and were sitting outside awaiting the outcome of an ongoing negotiation in Doha, Qatar that was supposed to facilitate a peaceful transfer of power by August 31.  Indeed, only the day before Ghani did not even want to discuss defense arrangements with US military leaders because he was planning to give a talk on digitizing the economy.  Not even the Taliban foresaw what was coming, although all kinds of columnists are given President Biden heck that he did not foresee it. As it is, no one has yet explained why those guards engaged in the black swan event of informing President Ghani of this false report about Taliban in his palace.

As it is, Ashraf Ghani is indeed a former academic, who was a professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University before going to work for the World Bank.  He would later serve as Minister of Finance before becoming president. He was often accused of not being completely on top of practical things and too concerned with more abstract issues and policies.  He was also accused of overseeing a highly corrupt regime, which undermined popular support for it and encouraged such support in the countryside for the Taliban.  He has also been accused of being corrupt himself, with there being rumors, denied by his spokespeople, that he left the country with over $100 million in cash.

Where I feel the sorriest for him is how former President Trump completely cut him out of negotiations that Trump had carried out with the Taliban in Doha, resulting in essentially a surrender to the Taliban in Feb. 2020.  This got barely above zero publicity at the time, with major TV networks only spending on average 5 seconds per week on Afghanistan, although now they have nonstop 24/7 coverage. The agreement involved Trump getting Pakistan to release 5000 prisoners, one of them, Baradar, now apparently the main Taliban leader, with some of these people also ISIS-K who are fighting both the US and the Taliban and carried out the suicide bombing at Kabul airport two days ago that killed 13 US military personnel.  The US was to get out by May 1 this year, with the Taliban promising not to attack any US forces, a promise kept, which would help Trump with his reelection campaign, even as it completely undercut and destroyed all confidence in the Afghan government of Ghani.

As it was, President Biden did move that removal date to August 31 from May 1 in negotiation with the Taliban, and it was ISIS-K that killed the US troops, not the Taliban. On April 27 the State Department told Americans to leave Afghanistan, and most have been gotten out, although apparently about 250 are still left who reportedly want out. Criticism that efforts were not made sooner to identify locations of them and also that paperwork to help out departing Afghan allies was not speeded up look valid. Complaints that these people were not moved out sooner face the problem that it was clear that such a move would precipitate the fall of the Ghani regime.

As it was, everybody, even the Taliban, thought the Afghan government would last longer than it did, even those who were forecasting that the removal of US troops would bring about its collapse quickly.  But even those people gave it several months or at least a few weeks.  Heck, the government in place after the Soviets left lasted for several years.  It was only nine days from when the first provincial capital fell on Aug. 6 to the Taliban in the far southwest to the fall of Kabul so suddenly on Aug. 15.

Now we again must recognize that former professor Ghani was not facing the reality of the situation then.  The WaPo story reports how soon after that US military tried to convince him that he needed to make a plan to let some of the capitals go while concentrating on a few that were crucial to the defense of Kabul, especially Jalalabad in the east. But he would have none of it, optimistically declaring they all could be defended even as they began to go in an accelerating wave with Jalalabad falling on Aug. 14. Even then he did not wish to discuss such matters, preferring to plan talks on economic policy. It did not help that his National Security Advisor was a 33-year old former ambassador with no military or intelligence experience.

As it was, apparently in the end he did recognize reality somewhat.  Late in the evening on Aug. 14 apparently he agreed to a negotiation with the Taliban about a power transfer, and on the morning of Aug. 15 an envoy of his actually flew out of Kabul to Doha to engage in that negotiation, which was what had the Taliban sitting outside the gates of Kabul.  But the black swan of guards misinforming Ghani arrived, and it was all over, and we have had a chaotic situation since, even as over 100,000 have been evacuated.

I supposed in the end even a non-former-professor might have fled suddenly if given the false information by guards that Ghani was.  I am seriously wondering if we shall learn what really lay behind this peculiar and unforecastable black swan event.

Barkley Rosserr

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Socially Ambivalent Labour Time XV: "Chapter Six" from the draft manuscripts of Capital

The draft "Chapter Six" was preceded by an earlier version of the analysis of formal and real subsumption of labour under capital. That earlier version is 28 pages long in volume 34 of the Marx-Engels Collected Works. "Chapter Six," proper, is 111 pages long. The earlier version contains one mention of the "labour socially necessary." The later version contains 12 references to: 

  • socially necessary labour time (3)
  • labour time socially necessary
  • socially necessary labour (4)
  • objectified labour... socially necessary 
  • socially necessary amount of labour time
  • socially necessary general labour, and 
  • quantity of labour socially necessary.

Besides "labour socially necessary," the earlier version had one reference to "average labour time necessary" and one to "general social labour time," which by context appear to refer to socially necessary labour time. 

It is, finally, common to all these forms of capitalist production that, for production to occur in a capitalist way, an ever-growing minimum of exchange value, of money—i.e. of constant capital and variable capital—is required to ensure that the labour necessary to obtain the product is the labour socially necessary, i.e. that the labour required for the production of a single commodity=the minimum amount of labour necessary under average conditions. (p. 107, volume 34)

Later in the same paragraph, Marx identified surplus population as integral to the incessant drive for productivity he called the "real subsumption of labour under capital":

It is precisely the productivity, and therefore the quantity of production, the numbers of the population and of the surplus population, created by this mode of production, that constantly calls forth new branches of industry, operating with the capital and labour that have been set free. In these branches capital can once again work on a small scale and again pass through the various phases of development required until with the development of capitalist production labour is carried on on a social scale in these new branches of industry as well, and accordingly capital appears again as a concentration of a great mass of social means of production in a single person's hands. This process is continuous.

With the real subsumption of labour under capital a complete revolution takes place in the mode of production itself, in the productivity of labour, and in the relation -- within production -- between the capitalist and the worker, as also in the social relation between them. (pp. 107-8)

This last paragraph was reprised almost verbatim in the later draft: 

With the real subsumption of labour under capital there takes place a complete //and a constant, continuous, and repeated // revolution in the mode of production itself, in the productivity of labour and in the relation between capitalist and worker. (p. 439)

After some additional material, the second version also repeats the paragraph that in the earlier version came immediately before the description of real subsumption as a revolution in the mode of production:

The capitalist mode of production develops the productivity of labour, the amount of production, the size of the population, and the size of the surplus population. With the capital and labour thus released, new branches of business are constantly called into existence, and in these capital can again work on a small scale and again pass through the different developments outlined until these new branches of business are also conducted on a social scale. This is a constant process. (p. 440)

The earlier draft is notable for its immediate launch into discussion of the superfluity of all necessary labour that does not produce surplus value. This recalls language from the Grundrisse in "Necessary Labour. Surplus Labour. Surplus Population. Surplus Capital."


Since the purpose of productive labour is not the existence of the worker but the production of surplus value, all necessary labour which produces no surplus labour is superfluous and worthless to capitalist production. The same is true for a nation of capitalists. The same proposition can also be expressed in this way, that all gross product which only replaces the worker's subsistence (approvisionnement), and produces no net product, is just as superfluous as the existence of those workers who themselves produce no net product or no SURPLUS VALUE—or those who, although they were necessary for the production of SURPLUS VALUE at a given stage of the development of industry, have become superfluous to the production of that SURPLUS VALUE at a more advanced stage of development. Or, in other words, only the number of people profitable to capital is necessary. The same is true for a nation of capitalists. (pp. 104-5)

Again, the passage is reprised in the later version almost verbatim:

Gross and Net Product

(This is perhaps better placed in chapter III of Book III) Since the purpose of capitalist production (and therefore of productive labour) is not the existence of the producer but the production of surplus value, all necessary labour which produces no surplus labour is superfluous and worthless to capitalist production. The same is true for a nation of capitalists. All gross product which only reproduces the worker, i.e. produces no net product (surplus PRODUCE) is just as superfluous as that worker, himself [who produces no surplus value]. Or, if certain workers were necessary for the production of net product at a given stage of the development of production, they become superfluous at a more advanced stage of production, which no longer requires them. Or, in other words, only the number of people profitable to capital is necessary. The same is true for a nation of capitalists. (p. 452-3)

For the most part, the passages referring to socially necessary labour time in "Chapter Six" simply reiterate (or anticipate) the definitions given in chapter one of volume one of Capital. Two passage stand out for their explicit connection of the pursuit of relative surplus value through productivity innovations. Notably, the first passage is the opening paragraph of the section on real subsumption:
The Real Subsumption of Labour under Capital or the Specifically Capitalist Mode of Production
In CHAPTER III we exhaustively analysed how the whole real shape of the mode of production changes with the production of relative surplus value //in the case of the individual capitalist, in so far as he seizes the initiative, it is spurred on by the fact that value = the socially necessary labour time objectified in the product, and therefore [extra] surplus value begins to be created for him once the individual value of his product stands below its social value, and can as a result be sold above its individual value// and how a specifically capitalist mode of production arises (technologically as well), on the basis of which, and with which, there also begins a simultaneous development of the relations of production corresponding to the capitalist production process—relations between the different agents of production, in particular between the capitalist and the wage labourer. (p. 428)

The second passage of interest to this review occurs 14 pages later, after a lengthy digression of supplementary remarks on formal subsumption:

On the one hand this [engaging in production for production's sake] appears as a law, to the extent that the capitalist who produces on too small a scale would embody in his products more than the quantity of labour socially necessary. It therefore appears as the adequate implementation of the law of value, which first develops completely on the basis of the capitalist mode of production. On the other hand, however, it appears as the drive of the individual capitalist, who endeavours to reduce the individual value of his commodity below its socially determined value in order to break through this law, or to cheat it to gain an advantage for himself. (p. 442)

In the draft "Chapter Six" Marx did exactly what I criticized him for not doing in chapter 12 of volume one of Capital and even more so in chapters 15 and 25: making explicit the connection between his law of value, and consequently socially necessary labour time, and the capitalist drive for extra surplus value through the introduction of machinery. 

Marx did not dwell extensively on surplus population in the two drafts on the subsumption of labour under capital. But he did mention it and he mentioned it in connection with "the labour socially necessary, i.e. that the labour required for the production of a single commodity."

Monday, August 23, 2021

Socially Ambivalent Labour Time XIV: Capital volume III, chapters 38 and 49

I thought this was going to be the final installment of my review of Marx's writing on socially necessary labour time but then I discovered, as I was going through my posts that I haven't done the draft "chapter six" that contains the fascinating discussion of formal and real subsumption. So there will be either one or two mores posts. Yay!!

An index page of all the posts so far -- both numbered and unnumbered -- is here

Chapter 38, "Differential rent: general remarks," contains an interested recapitulation of the relationship between market price and value, specifying the "socially necessary quantity of commodity varieties" as part of the determination of socially necessary labour time:

It is in general in the form of the market-price, and, furthermore, in the form of the regulating market-price, or market-price of production, that the nature of the value of commodities asserts itself, its determination not by the labour-time necessary in the case of any individual producer for the production of a certain quantity of commodities, or of some individual commodity, but by the socially necessary labour-time; that is, by the labour-time, required for the production of the socially necessary total quantity of commodity varieties on the market under the existing average conditions of social production.

This isn't a distinction I have encountered before and a search of the collected works turns up no similar phrase. It would appear to refer to the fact that a significant quantity of variety of use values would need to be present on the market for generalized exchange based on abstract values to occur. Later in chapter 38, Marx explained how monopoly access to a waterfall, for example, would enable a capitalist to avoid the cancellation of surplus profit through other capitals introducing the same technology. "It is by no means within the power of capital to call into existence this natural premise for a greater productivity of labour in the same manner as any capital may transform water into steam."

Chapter 49,  "Concerning the analysis of the process of production," reiterates that "Profit (profit of enterprise plus interest) and rent are nothing but peculiar forms assumed by particular parts of the surplus-value of commodities." Marx discussed socially necessary labour time here only in connection with explanation that surplus value may not be entirely realized and that the apportionment of value into wages, profit and rent is simply a capitalist form of expression for "the measure of socially necessary labour contained in a commodity."

Sunday, August 22, 2021

“Do Your Research”

Is it my imagination, or do vax- and mask-hesitant people, reported in news stories about the Covid Divide, almost always say they “have done their research” or something like that?  The medical people and public health advocates that get interviewed rarely seem to use this phrase, at least not in the first person.  More research, more unhinged beliefs—how does that happen?

There are many parts to this story, but one is summed up in the word “research” itself.  In high school, students are taught to use the internet or general bibliographic indexes to find articles about their topic, take notes, and use them to “support” their thesis by showing that there are others, prominent enough to get published, who agree with them.  If they’re lucky, these students will go on to college and come into contact with teachers who de-educate them in this charade of scholarship and instead show how to do the real thing.  But between those who don’t go to college and those who do but don’t find that kind of teacher, most people never graduate from the high school approach.  They think going online and finding a few articles about the government coverup of vaccine deaths or the uselessness of masks means that they have done due diligence, thinking for themselves instead of robotically following public health mandates.

Practically speaking, how can we translate a deeper understanding of “research” into habits that everyone can make sense of and follow?

It’s just one way, but here’s how I taught it in the classroom.  I would say there are really two kinds of research, passive and active.*  Passive research is what you’re taught to do in high school.  You more or less randomly find some articles about the topic you’re interested in, jot down notes, and take stock of what you’ve learned up to that point.  If you are coming at a subject without any prior background, it’s the only way to begin.

But that’s just the first step.  Next, look at your notes and analyze what they say and what’s missing.  If someone says A causes B, do you have a full understanding of how that’s supposed to work—what actual process does it and why other factors don’t prevent it?  Look into the sources you’ve read: do they or the organizations they work for have an interest in the argument they’re making?  If a source offers what seems to be a fringe position, can you explain why it’s fringy—why they haven’t persuaded a bigger chunk of the mainstream of their field to join their side?  For every argument, what are the main counterarguments?  For empirical evidence, what are the uncertainties: the measurement issues, statistical questions, or possible inconsistency with other findings?

There’s no getting around the challenge of this second step.  It requires systematically thinking through the first-round information, locating gaps and squishy parts.  There’s a limit to how thorough you can be, especially if you don’t have much expertise to draw on, but it’s the only antidote to the “little-knowledge-is-a-dangerous-thing” syndrome.

The final step is to move to active research.  Instead of simply reading whatever comes your way on the basis of a very general search, you are actively seeking answers to the specific questions arising from your analysis.  This can mean locating rebuttals to specific authors or arguments, detailed bits of information needed to evaluate empirical claims, or the missing pieces that the initial round of reading didn’t turn up.  This requires more advanced search skills, which a knowledgeable teacher can help with.

The “research” that gathers up a clutch of anti-vax or other fringe Covid-related material is at best just the passive, stage one sort.  Unless you move on from there you may end up less informed, or more misinformed, than you were before you started.

*Actually, the research methods discussed in this post are what practitioners call desk research or literature reviews.  At the base of the food chain are the labors of researchers who themselves gather data, perform analyses or construct models to create new knowledge.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Socially Ambivalent Labour Time XIII: Capital volume III, chapter 15

Chapter 15 of volume III, "Exposition of the Internal Contradictions of the Law [of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall] is iconic. Sensationalists and contrarians will no doubt be drawn to the chapter on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. But true aficionados know that the real meat is in the counter-tendencies (chapter 14) and contradictions. One of the counter-tendencies was relative over-population of workers. It plays an even larger role in the contradictions of the tendency.

The paragraph immediately preceding section III of chapter 15, "Excess Capital and Excess Population," has a familiar ring to it:

The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself. It is that capital and its self-expansion appear as the starting and the closing point, the motive and the purpose of production; that production is only production for capital and not vice versa, the means of production are not mere means for a constant expansion of the living process of the society of producers. The limits within which the preservation and self-expansion of the value of capital resting on the expropriation and pauperisation of the great mass of producers can alone move -- these limits come continually into conflict with the methods of production employed by capital for its purposes, which drive towards unlimited extension of production, towards production as an end in itself, towards unconditional development of the social productivity of labour. The means -- unconditional development of the productive forces of society -- comes continually into conflict with the limited purpose, the self-expansion of the existing capital. The capitalist mode of production is, for this reason, a historical means of developing the material forces of production and creating an appropriate world-market and is, at the same time, a continual conflict between this its historical task and its own corresponding relations of social production.

What does this remind me of? This paragraph from the Grundrisse fragment on machines:

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary. On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value. Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high.

Then comes the section on "Excess Capital and Excess Population." Excess, incidentally, is a translation of our old friend, überfluß (as in überflüssig). Surplus population and surplus capital, excess capital and excess population. We appear to have a match here with the section given the heading of "Necessary labour. Surplus labour. Surplus population, Surplus capital" in the English translation of the Grundrisse. Or, to be more consistent with a previous post, the three fragments on machines.

Socially necessary labour time is implicated in the first sentence of "Excess Capital and Excess Population":

A drop in the rate of profit is attended by a rise in the minimum capital required by an individual capitalist for the productive employment of labour; required both for its exploitation generally, and for making the consumed labour-time suffice as the labour-time necessary for the production of the commodities, so that it does not exceed the average social labour-time required for the production of the commodities.

Come to think of it "average social labour-time required" would have been a less confusing name for it than socially necessary labour time. A little later in the section, Marx explained that:

This plethora of capital arises from the same causes as those which call forth relative over-population, and is, therefore, a phenomenon supplementing the latter, although they stand at opposite poles — unemployed capital at one pole, and unemployed worker population at the other.

As Marx commented later on, "It is no contradiction that this over-production of capital is accompanied by more or less considerable relative over-population." It is no contradiction because the surplus capital cannot employ the surplus population unless it can produce sufficient surplus value. In short, there is superfluous superfluity (capital, population) on the one hand because there is deficient superfluity (value) on the other. 

Marx summed up the excess capital, excess population contradiction brilliantly in a series of stark rhetorical reversals. I have abridged the text somewhat to emphasize the form of the argument:

There are not too many necessities of life produced, in proportion to the existing population. Quite the reverse. Too little is produced to decently and humanely satisfy the wants of the great mass.

There are not too many means of production produced to employ the able-bodied portion of the population. Quite the reverse. ...

On the other hand, too many means of labour and necessities of life are produced at times to permit of their serving as means for the exploitation of labourers at a certain rate of profit. ...

Not too much wealth is produced. But at times too much wealth is produced in its capitalistic, self-contradictory forms.

The limitations of the capitalist mode of production come to the surface...

It comes to a standstill at a point fixed by the production and realisation of profit, and not the satisfaction of requirements.

This sequence reprises the argument made in the Grundrisse -- needs without the means to satisfy them; the relation of necessary and surplus labour turns into its opposite:

Labour capacity can perform its necessary labour only if its surplus labour has value for capital, if it can be realised by capital. Thus, if this realisability is blocked by one or another barrier, then (1) labour capacity itself appears outside the conditions of the reproduction of its existence; it exists without the conditions of its existence, and is therefore a mere encumbrance; needs without the means to satisfy them; (2) necessary labour appears as superfluous, because the superfluous is not necessary. It is necessary only to the extent that it is the condition for the realization of capital. Thus the relation of necessary and surplus labour, as it is posited by capital, turns into its opposite, so that a part of necessary labour – i.e. of the labour reproducing labour capacity – is superfluous, and this labour capacity itself is therefore used as a surplus of the necessary working population, i.e. of the portion of the working population whose necessary labour is not superfluous but necessary for capital.

This is the penultimate installment of my examination of Marx's category of socially necessary labour time. The final post will be anti-climactic. I will be dealing with some "general remarks on differential rent" in chapter 38 of volume III and chapter 49, "concerning the analysis of the process of production." There is nothing really new or unusual about those commentaries, as far as I can see, but it will be useful to go through the exercise for the sake of completeness.


Friday, August 20, 2021

Socially Ambivalent Labour Time XII: Capital volume III, chapters 5 & 10

In chapter five of volume III, Engels made a blunder by referring to socially necessary labour time as necessary labour time. Presumably, the error originated in Marx's notes and Engels didn't notice and correct it:

If it is the necessary labour-time which determines the value of commodities, instead of all the labour-time contained in them, so it is the capital which realises this determination and, at the same time, continually reduces the labour-time socially necessary to produce a given commodity.

This may seem like nitpicking except that, for Marx, necessary labour time is defined as the time required to recover the cost of labour power and is explicitly differentiated from surplus labour time. The error was not introduced by the translation, the original German also uses notwendige Arbeitzeit where gesellschaftlich notwendige Arbeitzeit would be required by context:

Wenn der Wert der Waren bestimmt ist durch die in ihnen enthaltne notwendige Arbeitszeit, nicht durch die überhaupt in ihnen enthaltne Arbeitszeit, so ist es das Kapital, das diese Bestimmung erst realisiert und zugleich fortwährend die zur Produktion einer Ware gesellschaftlich notwendige Arbeitszeit verkürzt.

We can figure out what Marx/Engels means here but maybe it would have been better to call socially necessary labour-time something more distinctive from necessary labour time?

Chapter ten presents an analysis of how the accidents of supply and demand can result in a price for a commodity above or below its market-value, as determined by socially necessary labour time. It is worth quoting in full:

In the case of supply and demand, however, the supply is equal to the sum of sellers, or producers, of a certain kind of commodity, and the demand equals the sum of buyers or consumers (both productive and individual) of the same kind of commodity. The sums react on one another as units, as aggregate forces. The individual counts here only as part of a social force, as an atom of the mass, and it is in this form that competition brings out the social character of production and consumption.

The side of competition which happens for the moment to be weaker is also the side in which the individual acts independently of, and often directly against, the mass of his competitors, and precisely in this manner is the dependence of one upon the other impressed upon them, while the stronger side acts always more or less as a united whole against its antagonist. If the demand for this particular kind of commodity is greater than the supply, one buyer outbids another — within certain limits — and so raises the price of the commodity for all of them above the market-value, while on the other hand the sellers unite in trying to sell at a high market-price. If, conversely, the supply exceeds the demand, one begins to dispose of his goods at a cheaper rate and the others must follow, while the buyers unite in their efforts to depress the market-price as much as possible below the market-value. The common interest is appreciated by each only so long as he gains more by it than without it. And unity of action ceases the moment one or the other side becomes the weaker, when each tries to extricate himself on his own as advantageously as he possibly can. Again, if one produces more cheaply and can sell more goods, thus possessing himself of a greater place in the market by selling below the current market-price, or market-value, he will do so, and will thereby begin a movement which gradually compels the others to introduce the cheaper mode of production, and one which reduces the socially necessary labour to a new, and lower, level. If one side has the advantage, all belonging to it gain. It is as though they exerted their common monopoly. If one side is weaker, then one may try on his own hook to become the stronger (for instance, one who works with lower costs of production), or at least to get off as lightly as possible, and in such cases each for himself and the devil take the hindmost, although his actions affect not only himself, but also all his boon companions.  

The compulsion to reduce socially necessary labour by introducing cheaper methods of production thus engages the same competitive pressures as the discrepancy between supply and demand. The implication is that the pressure to economize production is especially intense in industries that already confront a surplus of supply over demand. I don't know what the empirical evidence for (or against) this is but it would be interesting to find out.