Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Dear Omar al-Ubaydli:

Yes, Omar, I would be delighted to elaborate. Thank you for asking.

The point I am trying to make was stated by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, "He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that." The truth of that maxim is illustrated by the claim, in your counterpoint to Dean Baker, that "proponents of work-sharing believe an economy requires a fixed amount of work to be performed by a limited number of people."

Not only is that assertion untrue, but it has been repeated ad nauseum for two hundred and thirty-six years without any effort by claimants to ascertain what "proponents of work-sharing" (etc.) actually believe.

Not only is the claim unfounded, but it has been refuted half a dozen times or more by notable economists. Those rebuttals have never been addressed by the antagonists who repeat and repeat the fixed amount of work mantra.

Not only is the claim untrue and unfounded, but it is rote -- a monotonous, mechanical repetition of the same catchwords and phrases that have been recited a thousand time over the span of more than two centuries.

"There is, say they, a certain quantity of labour to be performed," wrote Dorning Rasbotham in 1780. "The principle itself is false. There is not a precise limited quantity of labour, beyond which there is no demand."

"At the bottom of these contrivances for artificially increasing the amount of employment," echoed a reviewer in the Edinburgh Review in 1867, "there seems to lurk the fallacy of supposing that the labour required to be done in any department of trade, or in the country generally, is a fixed quantity."

"Their theory is that the amount of work to be done is a fixed quantity," recited the London correspondent to the New York Times in 1871. "The root of the mania... " parroted the columnist in The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art in 1876, "is the idea that the amount of work to be done is a fixed quantity..."

"These people think that the amount of work to be done is a fixed quantity." "...on the assumption that the amount of work to be done is a fixed quantity..." "...the utterly untenable supposition that a fixed amount of work exists..." "But there is not, as this argument assumes, a fixed Work-Fund, a certain amount of work which has to be done, whatever the price of labour." "The Leaders of the Federation said that there was a certain amount of work to be done in Atlantis..." "The notion is that there is exactly so much labor predetermined to be done..." "This means, roughly speaking, that there is a certain total number of hours of work to be done each week." "This view -- that the amount of work to be done is fixed -- is called the lump-of-labor fallacy." "...the erroneous belief that there is only a certain amount of work in the community to be done..."

Evidently, knowing nothing about their opponent's position was good enough for a long line of  recitalists as long as they could dutifully repeat what they had been taught to repeat. In Fights, Games and Debates, though, Anatol Rapoport (1960) outlined what he believed to be essential features of an ethical debate. He summarized these principles in a subsequent book, Strategy and Conscience (1964):
  1. The ability and willingness of each participant to state the position of the opponent to the opponent's satisfaction (exchange of roles)

  2. The ability and willingness of each participant to state the conditions under which the opponent's position is valid or has merit (recognition that any position whatever has some region of validity)

  3. The ability and willingness of each opponent to assume that in many respects the  the opponent is like himself; that is to say, that a common ground exists where the opponents share common values, and each is aware of this common ground and, perhaps, of the circumstances which have led the opponent to the position he holds (empathy)
As a counter-example, consider for a moment John Ramsay McCulloch's 1827 homage to Dorning Rasbotham's tirade about the "certain quantity of labour to be performed": "There is, in fact, no idea so groundless and absurd, as that which supposes that an increased facility of production can under any circumstances be injurious to the labourers." McCulloch refused to admit any conditions under which his opponent's position might be valid. He scorned that position as groundless and absurd -- more groundless and absurd, in fact, than any other idea!

End of discussion.

Allow me to now restate your position, Omar, and please tell me whether it is to your satisfaction:
1. You observe that some proponents of work-sharing reckon as if the amount of work to be done is unchanging. That is, they figure that if there are now 320 people employed for 40 hours a week and 80 unemployed, then all 400 will be employed if the hours are reduced to 32. This is a mechanical calculation and overlooks the fact that changes in hours and employment levels will result in changes in labor costs and productivity. These latter changes will affect product prices and consequently consumer demand and the quantity of work required to meet that demand. 
2. It is indeed true that some proponents of work-sharing offer calculations based on a mechanical substitution of numbers of workers (n) for hours (h) on the assumption that n*h = some constant -- all other things being equal -- and appear to forget that all other things are not equal. 
3. I share with you a suspicion of mechanical calculations based on spurious ceteris paribus assumptions. These can be misleading guides to policy formulation and can potentially lead to results that are contrary to those that were intended. Presumably, the lessons taught in economics about the "fixed amount of work" were intended to impress upon students the importance of thinking through a problem to its realistic conclusion, rather than jumping to conclusions based on mechanical manipulation of a few isolated variables.
Is that a satisfactory statement of your position, Omar? If so, would you now be able and willing to state your opponents' position to the opponents' satisfaction? 

Let me make that task* a bit more specific, though. There are two arguments for work-time reduction, put forward, respectively, by Arthur Cecil Pigou and Maurice Dobb, that do not rely on a mechanical, fixed amount of work calculation and thus refute the view that proponents of work-sharing necessarily assume that there is a fixed amount of work.

Pigou contended that reduction of the hours of work would increase employment to the extent that additional leisure time makes workers more efficient. Dobb maintained that it was not aggregate wages that workers were interested in but wages in proportion to the amount of effort expended. Thus the limitation of working time might increase relative wages regardless of whether it increased or decreased aggregate output and total wages. The two arguments are not mutually exclusive.

I have appended the pertinent excerpts from Pigou and Dobb below.

*task: "a certain quantity of work to be done"

A.C. Pigou, Unemployment (1913) Some popular explanations of unemployment
It would, however, be unwarrantable to conclude that, because the reasons which popular thought offers in defence of any thesis are invalid, therefore, that thesis is untrue. If it were a good ground for rejecting an opinion that many persons entertain it for bad reasons, there would, alas, be few current beliefs left standing! As a matter of fact, however, conclusions are often right when the reasons adduced by their supporters are ridiculously wrong. It is not undesirable to walk under a builder's ladder because to do so is, in some magical manner, "unlucky"; but those who dislike the impact of accidentally descending bricks will, nevertheless, do wisely to refrain. Indeed, the reasoning process, which seeks to rebut a conclusion merely by disproving the cogency of a particular argument used in its support, itself involves a fallacy to which logicians have given a name — the fallacy ignoratio elenchi. We are not, therefore, entitled to cut short our inquiry concerning unemployment and the fixed work-fund at the point reached so far. It is still necessary to inquire by direct study whether the extra employment, which would be made available in a particular trade by cutting off the competition of foreigners or prisoners in respect of that trade, would be net extra employment, or would be balanced by a corresponding loss of employment in other industries. 
The ineffectiveness of the reasoning we have hitherto been reviewing is easily explained. That reasoning fails to penetrate beneath the surface of appearance to the essential under-lying causes. Economists, however, are acquainted with a more adequate analysis. Let us take the point of view of those workpeople in the country who are unemployed, and for whom it is contended that the exclusion of competing imports, the prohibition of prison-labour and the reduction of the normal hours of work would create employment. Why are these people unemployed? They are unemployed because, at the wage they ask, there is no demand for their services, and, unless the wage they ask is lowered, they can only cease to be unemployed if such a demand comes into being. But whence can such a demand come? It can only come from the general income of the country, that is to say, from the product of the labour and capital of the rest of the community. It follows that the exclusion of competing imports, the prohibition of prison-labour and the reduction of the normal hours of work can create employment for them on one condition and on one condition only; namely, that these devices succeed in rendering the labour and capital of the rest of the community more effective in production. The prohibition of prison-labour is certain not to do this, and must necessarily have the opposite effect. The reduction of the normal hours of work will do it or will fail to do it, according as the extra leisure increases the workers' efficiency more or less than in proportion to the reduction of hours.
Maurice Dobb, Wages (1928), The influence of bargaining power, pages 97-99
When in reply to the economists' theory that wages were inexorably determined by supply and demand, the trade unionists of the middle nineteenth century declared that they would influence wages by limiting the supply of labour through restrictions on working overtime etc., the economists retorted by accusing them of harbouring a fallacious "Work-Fund" doctrine—of thinking that by limiting the work done by each more employment could be created for others. The retort partly missed the point of the argument in so far as the trade unionists were trying to raise the supply-price of their labour by limiting its amount. But at the same time the economists' ignoratio elenchi contained a point of its own that was important. What they intended to say was that a restriction on the supply of labour could not increase aggregate earnings, and, unless it took the form of restriction of the numbers of the working population, could not increase aggregate earnings per head. This follows if the demand for labour, or the Wages-Fund, is elastic—if it is larger when there is more profit to be made than when there is less. Such restriction can, however, increase wages in proportion to the worker's expenditure of energy and his "wear and tear," and it can increase Relative Wages, or wages as a proportion of the total social income.

The same applies to modern trade union methods of collective bargaining, which aim, not primarily at restricting the supply of labour, but at raising the supply-price of labour and setting a minimum below which labour cannot be purchased. Such action has quite a wide power of influencing the rate of wages that is paid in proportion to the amount of work that is done, and so of increasing welfare. But, while it can do this, it is unlikely to add to aggregate earnings; and if trade union action goes beyond the attempt to raise the wages of particular grades or particularly exploited groups in special circumstances, it is likely to result in unemployment. What was implied in the economists' retort to the advocates of the so-called Work-Fund leads to the apparent paradox that the more the workers allow themselves to be exploited, the more their aggregate earnings will increase (at least in the long run), even if the result is for the earnings of the propertied class to increase still faster. And on this base is erected a doctrine of social harmony between the classes. But it does not follow that the workers will prefer to be exploited to a maximum degree, or that attempts to limit this exploitation are based on fallacious reasoning. And if in raising the supply-price of their labour the choice lies between restricting the number of men employed or of restricting the amount of work done by each man, the latter seems clearly the preferable alternative.


Omar Al-Ubaydli said...

Dear Tom

Thank you for taking the time to provide a comprehensive response, and your position is much clearer to me than before. Here are some of my thoughts.

1) In retrospect it was sloppy of me to imply that all the proponents hold a certain position when the reality is clearly that only some of them do.

2) Your summary of my position is satisfactory but it omits the most important part, which is what the data from Europe show.

I was asked to take a position on the expected effect of shorter work weeks on unemployment as part of a point counterpoint. My position is primarily based on what the data show, which is mixed effects, but never a substantial decrease in unemployment. Given the position of the other contributor it made sense to cast me in the "more unemployment" role. While many of the other outcome variables that you consider are important they are not part of the brief, and one can only consider so much in 750 words. Also in the EU unemployment is unquestionably the overriding impetus behind work sharing schemes, assuming that one takes politicians at face value.

I then use economic theory to explain these empirical findings, and to explain why simple models may underlie the position of some proponents.

3) The goal of my contribution was not to provide, or claim to provide, the final word on the issues at hand. Point-counterpoints are supposed to engender constructive discourse. I think that your contributions are valuable, but they seem to regard my contribution as verging on the conspiratorial, or reeking of ignorance. I think that you should lower the bar on what you expect to be delivered by such pieces, and refrain from accusing contributors of lying, especially since you are clearly not just a troll, but that's a minor point.

4) If I was to repeat the exercise, it would have been useful for the brief given to the authors to be disclosed openly to minimize confusion over the goals of the contributors.



Thornton Hall said...

The deeper problem is the failure of economists to make statements with truth conditions. Thus, a debate where Rapoport number 2 is null.

This, of course, is the chief fault of Marx. What are the truth conditions of his theory of value? What are the truth conditions of "Unlike other 'fields', economics/political economy is crucial for sustaining a ruling ideology."

Sandwichman said...

The even deeper problem, Thornton, is that it's deeper and deeper problems all the down. Try the exercise for a change, if only to confirm to yourself its nullity.

If I were you, I'd blame it all on Marx. First, Marx is dead, so he can't talk back. Second, no one reads Marx, so they won't know if you are right or wrong. Third, the name "Marx" sounds like a scary boogie man haunting Europe from the depths of Stalin's Gulag.

Better idea: the chief fault is Marx... AND ZOMBIES! Because zombies make everything more fun. The deeper problem is thus Marx and zombies.

Thornton Hall said...

So the truth conditions are...

Thornton Hall said...

By the by... Krugman, Cochrane, and all the rest make claims with no truth conditions. The problem I complain of is not Marx. The problem is that every critique of the orthodox is influenced by Marx and therefore commits the flaws it should be pointing out. When the discussion is limited to math savants who follow Lucas or Marx or someone who follows the followers of Lucas or Marx then you have a room full of people all commuted to making the same error. And it cannot be corrected by empirical reality because the discussion features claims without truth conditions.

Maybe I should blame all of continental philosophy from Kant to Gaddamer for creating a vast intellectual space where claims without truth conditions are regarded as scholarship. "Marx" is shorthand.

PS Again, what are the truth conditions?

Sandwichman said...


The truth conditions are that you are not commenting about my post. You don't appear to be at all interested in the topic I am talking about but just taking this as a place to post your views on something else entirely. Maybe you think there is a connection. But if you do you make no effort to persuade me that there is one. This style of narcissistic solipsism reminds me of Egmont Kakarot-Handke's self-important rants.

I don't imagine or pretend that economics is a science. It is a discourse with some very serious and troubling defects and a few scattered insights. I also don't imagine that economics could be made into a science, if only economists would do this or that. What I am talking about is that are ways to have more fruitful conversations about the very things that economics prevents us from having fruitful conversations about.

Would you be willing and able to give a satisfactory summary of my position before you launch into one of your formulaic complaints about something that has little connection with what I have written?

Magpie said...


Given that the original conversation between the Sandwichman and Omar al-Ubaydli seems -- unfortunately -- to be over, I'd contribute my two cents to the exchange that hijacked the conversation.

Given the emphasis he placed on truth conditions, it seems to me the crux of Thornton Hall's objection is that "Marx" (in this idiosyncratic usage as a shorthand for all economists, including "Krugman, Cochrane" and continental philosophers, "from Kant to Gaddamer") collectively fail to state what the truth conditions of their theories are.


"This, of course, is the chief fault of Marx. What are the truth conditions of his theory of value?"

If my understanding of Hall's criticism, as stated above, is correct, I cannot but conclude said criticism is absurd: it's not the job of "Marx" to state the truth conditions of his theories, it's their critics'.

It cannot be the job of economists or continental philosophers or anybody, for that matter, to state the truth conditions of their theories: when formulating a theory, people try to cover their bases, people try to anticipate criticism/objections and have answers to them.

They do that to the extent of their capabilities. They may succeed, but they may fail. Weaknesses may and often do persist: they weren't perceived. Devastating objections could be raised, only because they were not anticipated.

It makes no sense to criticise anybody for that: it's tantamount to demanding of people to be more capable than they were capable, to see what they could not see.

It -- too -- shifts the burden of proof. To detect those remaining weaknesses is the critics' job.

And at least to me, it's evident that wasn't Rapoport's intention or his meaning, either: it's the critics' task (1) "to state the conditions under which the opponent's position is valid or has merit (recognition that any position whatever has some region of validity)". And (2) to prove/demonstrate reality falls outside that "region of validity".

If the above is granted to me, it's you, Hall, who needs to do both things.

Sandwichman said...


There will be at least one more episode in the exchange between Omar and I -- my response to Omar's comment. Hopefully, it will continue.

Sandwichman said...

And a word to Thornton: if you post an off-topic conversation stopper to my reply to Omar's comment, I will delete it as spam, without regrets.

Thornton Hall said...

Where is the proper place to point out that focusing on various iterations of specific errors serves to reinforce and strengthen the general and overarching error of the status quo? Does the fact that the status quo kills poor people daily matter?

Thornton Hall said...

I caused confusion by using "truth condition" to mean "empirical truth condition".

In semantics, a sentence means the set of circumstances that would obtain if the sentence were true. If these conditions cannot be expressed at all, then the sentence is nonsense. If these conditions are all abstract ideas (as in economics) then the sentence has meaning, but is intellectual masterbation.

If one writes a sentence and cannot state the truth conditions of that sentence, then one does not know what one is talking about.

Thus your statement that is up to the critic is silly. I am making the simple request that people who think they are making claims about the world successfully do so as a matter of semantics. Further I ask that they understand what they say.

Nonsense may nevertheless follow rules and S-man is free to live among them and debate their meaning. Many people debate whether Spider Man could beat the Incredible Hulk. The connection to reality being similar.

Sandwichman said...

"focusing on various iterations of specific errors serves to reinforce and strengthen the general and overarching error of the status quo"

What is the truth condition of that claim? Or are your assertion exempt from your own criteria because they are "meta"?

This is not a debate about whether Spider Man could beat the Incredible Hulk. If you can't tell the difference, you're delusional.