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December 11, 2017


Luis Enrique

But the LTV says more than the output of the economy is divided between the workers and the (suppliers and) owners of capital goods, doesn't it? I mean, mainstream econ says that too. And unless ownership of capital inputs to production is distributed equally across society, then some people consume things that other's labour has produced, which means workers must produce more than they consume. But again, that's basic mainstream stuff, not LVT. You end by saying you can believe in exploitation but not LVT, and vice versa, but the main body of this blog seems to be connecting the two. I am confused.

Of course if you have the ability to vary your labour supply, and labour is how you earn your money, then you ask yourself how much you need to work to purchase whatever. But again that's mainstream not LVT.


nice cat!

David Friedman

Your version of the labor theory of value is one of Adam Smith's versions. I don't think it is Marx's, but I know Smith better than Marx.

And definitely not Ricardo's.

bob mckee

Chris glad the cat's ok and glad that you are finally getting Marx's Value theory. By the way Roemer is wrong and so is Smith.

Julian Wells

Marx's LTV is not (just) a theory of any old sort of exploitation, it's a theory of *capitalist* exploitation.

Thus its significance includes the further analyses it facilitates: Marx's account of capitalist competition and -- especially -- his discussion of the declining tendency of the general rate of profit, and thus his theory of capitalist crisis.


Meanwhile the rentiers sit back and laugh as the workers put their energy into complaining about being exploited at work by capitalists.


What about value, in terms of risk among others, that the employers put in starting a new business?


«Smith believed the LTV without arguing that workers were exploited.»

The marxian approach was interested in, as other commenters have said, in the specific capitalist case, where "capitalism" for him means strictly "labour for hire" by workers alienated from the means of production by their ownership by capitalists.

But the labour theory of value, as understood by what Marx called "classicals", applies also to all labour, and he used it in that sense.

My understanding of the classicals and the LTV is reduced to a minimum this:

* By "value" we mean "surplus".

* The "physiocrats" correctly identified "land" (mines, farms, the sea) as a producer of physical surplus: once corn seed produces a whole corn cob. The quantity of physical output appears to be greater than the quantity of physical input, a phenomenon that used to be called "fertility".

* However the "classicals" recognized that there is surplus also when the quantity of output is physically smaller than the quantity of input: a larger quantity of iron ore and coal gets turned into a much smaller quantity of metal called "spoon", and that generates surplus too.

* Since the surplus is not quantitative they called it a surplus of "ofelimity", of usefulness. A spoon is more useful than the physically larger quantity of iron ore and coal used to make it, in most contexts.

* So the question is what creates a surplus of ofelimity even if quantity shrinks drastically.

* The classicals observed that while quantitative surplus may be spontaneous, as in apple trees just produce apples by themselves, all cases involving a surplus of ofelimity involved the application of labour.

* The LTV is simply that observation: that the whole chain of surpluses of ofelimity always goes back to the application of labour, from the first people who chipped obsidian blocks into blades onwards.

* As such the LTV is not really a "theory": it is a generic principle. It would be more properly a theory if there was some kind of "law" that related the quantity of labour embedded in a commodity to the surplus of usefulness it seems to have. But any such law cannot be universal, because usefulness is strictly context dependent. Sraffa wrote some preliminary booklet about that :-).

Further understanding, which evolved after Marx, is that the LTV is just special case of the principle that what produces a surplus of usefulness is not labour per se, but the energy used in the transformation of a larger quantity of something into a smaller quantity of something else, and muscle power is just one way, even if it was the main one for a very long time, to obtain energy to transform a large quantity of less useful commodities into a smaller quantity of more useful commodities.

And this follows into the impression that I have derived from various authors that our high standards of living depend not on the high "productivity" of labour, but on the high "productivity" of fossil fuels, which are the product of the fertility of land.


«value, in terms of risk among others, that the employers put in starting a new business?»

If the business produces a surplus, that is value added, than the surplus is the product of the energy/labour expended by all participants

How it is accounted for is one issue, especially over multiple time periods, and how it is shared out is a social relationship.

As to risk, everybody in the business runs the risk of not getting paid at the end of the month, and the opportunity cost of not doing something else, whichever labour they put in.

How risk and opportunity cost are accounted for, especially over multiple time periods, is another issue, and how they are shared is another social relationship.


«the surplus is the product of the energy/labour expended by all participants»

I'll perhaps further diminish the reputation of my "contributions" this way: perhaps all social relationships of production (at least among males) map closely onto (cursorial) group hunts.



Luis Enrique

That's a very long winded way of saying that making stuff requires labour.


«a very long winded way of saying that making stuff requires labour»

Well, that's obvious, but what the classicals thought of as the LTV was not entirely obvious: that "surplus" (rather than "stuff") comes from the fertility of land and the transformation achieved with labour, and that nothing else is needed to achieve "surplus". Because for example capital goods are themselves surplus from fertility or labour, again back to the first blades made from chipping lumps of obsidian.

That's quite a bit more insightful, never mind also controversial, than "making stuff requires labour".

Luis Enrique

still seems obvious to me. Everything ultimately derives from nature and the labour of humans. Where else could stuff come from? That's all there is. What's controversial about it? True of 'surplus' and also if I make elaborate mud pies nobody wants. And how one gets from a production function (stuff is made from X, Y and Z) to LTV I have no idea.

Rich Clayton

Love this post. But, being a fellow marxist, I can't help but to disagree with this bit: "And they are alienated because this work is unsatisfying and a source of unfreedom." This is a colloquial use of alienation, and its not wrong. But Marx is getting at something else: the complex process of differentiation in the economy (aka the division of labor) obscures the relationship between the creation of the surplus (work time above that necessary to reproduce consumption bundle) and its utilization by capitalists via investment. Investment is not possible without exploitation of workers, but that relationship is occluded by the mechanics of employment, markets, and property. That's the sense in which workers are alienated under capitalism. Socialism could still have boring work, but, in so far as the investment function is brought under collective democratic control, workers would not be alienated in the special sense Marx is using.


@Luis Enrique

"Where else could stuff come from?" Well, assuming by "stuff" we mean objects of value, nowhere. But the reasons for which we value them are not dependent upon their natural origins or the labor required for their production. I don't value a computer because it's made of plastic and silicon and so forth, nor because of the labor required to produce it. It's useful because of what it does, not what it is; it's sort of Kant's definition of art versus the general conception of tools.

As for the relationship between production functions and the LTV, that seems (at least prima facie) pretty straightforward. If there is a high olefimity ascribed to the surplus provided by the product created by X, Y, then those production functions will, themselves, be assigned greater value, i.e., be worthy of more labor-time to attain. E.g., even if I'm not very good at fishing, if I really like the flavor of fish over other protein sources, I'll spend more time increasing my labor efficiency (be a better fisherman).


«Everything ultimately derives from nature and the labour of humans. Where else could stuff come from? That's all there is.»

Then in theory the cost (not the price) of everything can be measured in terms of physical quantities of primary inputs and of hours of work.

«What's controversial about it?»

What is controversial is that written like that you sound like a marxist: the alternative approach is to say that *property* creates surplus.
In the standard neoclassical approach "property" is the often forgotten "initial endowments" of the single representative agent.

Anyhow the "narrative" is: as Mr. Moneybags owns the iron mine and the coal mine and the smelter and the ingot roller and spoon press, then he is entitled to the surplus because without his property it is impossible to make spoons. Labour on its own is worthless, wastes away, while property is "valuable" capital.

«And how one gets from a production function (stuff is made from X, Y and Z) to LTV»

Production functions are just not very elaborate scams to pretend that property is the factor of production, rather then the fertility of land and the energy of labour, and land does not exist (after JB Clark "disappeared" it) and labour is just an accessory. Part of the scam is that "X, Y and Z" are denominated in money, not physical quantities.

As I wrote in another answer accounting for the output of land fertility and labour energy and how it is shared are the difficult bits. Welcome to the institutional approach to the political economy. :-)


«the reasons for which we value them are not dependent upon their natural origins or the labor required for their production»

And here be dragons. Your old bearded acquaintance Karl has something to say about this :-).

«It's useful because of what it does, not what it is»

So cleaning floors which is very useful should have a high value, while Leonardo paintings, that are merely scarce, should have a low value :-).

I though that most people reckoned that "value" depends on scarcity: so there is a scarcity of even not very good promoters of torysm, so G Osborne is entitled to £600,000 a year to edit the "Evening Standard", but there is no scarcity of excellent cleaners, so cleaners gets minimum wage if they are lucky.


Luis Enrique

counting hours of worked is not a measure of cost, it is a tally of hours worked. In mainstream econ, production functions describe a physical production process (to make 1 unit of Y, you combine inputs like so) and are not not denominated in money. e.g. You multiply L by w to get cost.


Economies are zero sum.

GDP must be paid for, otherwise it won't be produced.

The only source of money comes from labor costs, the money paid to workers to work producing GDP.

As conservatives note, all taxes fall on workers by directly taking their pay, or by hiking the prices of what workers buy.

Taxes pay workers, e.g. teachers, and doctors with Medicare and Medicaid, weapons makers and warriors, or pay people to pay workers, Social Security benefits and SNAP.

Capital has value because it is built by paying workers. It gets a cut to repay the payers of workers.

Monopoly rent seeking is unsustainable. If a monoplists takes more from workers than they pay workers, he eventually takes so much money workers can no longer pay for GDP and it falls to zero as workers produce what they consume without buying from the monopolist capital.


As Keynes put it:

"I feel sure that the demand for capital is strictly limited in the sense that it would not be difficult to increase the stock of capital up to a point where its marginal efficiency had fallen to a very low figure. This would not mean that the use of capital instruments would cost almost nothing, but only that the return from them would have to cover little more than their exhaustion by wastage and obsolescence together with some margin to cover risk and the exercise of skill and judgment. In short, the aggregate return from durable goods in the course of their life would, as in the case of short-lived goods, just cover their labour costs of production plus an allowance for risk and the costs of skill and supervision.

"Now, though this state of affairs would be quite compatible with some measure of individualism, yet it would mean the euthanasia of the rentier, and, consequently, the euthanasia of the cumulative oppressive power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity-value of capital. Interest today rewards no genuine sacrifice, any more than does the rent of land. The owner of capital can obtain interest because capital is scarce, just as the owner of land can obtain rent because land is scarce. But whilst there may be intrinsic reasons for the scarcity of land, there are no intrinsic reasons for the scarcity of capital. An intrinsic reason for such scarcity, in the sense of a genuine sacrifice which could only be called forth by the offer of a reward in the shape of interest, would not exist, in the long run, except in the event of the individual propensity to consume proving to be of such a character that net saving in conditions of full employment comes to an end before capital has become sufficiently abundant. But even so, it will still be possible for communal saving through the agency of the State to be maintained at a level which will allow the growth of capital up to the point where it ceases to be scarce."

Economies are zero sum. The value of goods and services must equal the labor costs in the long run. Tanstaaafl


«Socialism could still have boring work, but, in so far as the investment function is brought under collective democratic control, workers would not be alienated in the special sense Marx is using.»

My impression is that your bearded friend Karl does not use "alienation" in that sense at all, in an economic sense, but in a humanist sense: that by being separated from the means of production proletarians are alienated from the meaning of their work, from work as a human activity, as distinct from an economic activity.
Collective ownership does not change at all that kind of alienation: being a cog in the capitalist machinery is no less alienating than being a cog in the collectivist machinery.
I think that our blogger when he talks about distributing control of the production process to workers is far closer to the marxian ideal than a collectivist approach.

Practically every "Dilbert" strip is about "alienation". This is my favourite:


But these are also good:


Luis Enrique

That is not what zero sum means


«counting hours of worked is not a measure of cost»

For a definition of "cost" that is made-up disregarding P Sraffa's work and in general the classics.

«multiply L by w to get cost.»

As J Robinson and others pointed out that "w" depends on the distribution of income, on the interest rate, etc., so is an institutional matter.
As I was saying, accounting for the surplus and how to share it is not so easily handwavable.

Luis Enrique

sorry, I meant for a money definition of cost that is not just counting inputs, but which is inputs multiplied by their prices.

nobody is hand waving. I think the mainstream view is that 'value' and 'surplus' are not meaningful terms, only prices and profits and subjective value. A production function says nothing about prices, you have to explain them with other stuff, and as you say, institutions and all manner of things could come in the play there.

You can say that that workers produce more in money terms than than they are paid, which is trivial (the wages paid by an employer are less than its gross profits so long as there are non-zero returns to capital, interest on a loan or dividends or whatever) and to my mind it's silly to define that as exploitation because it would apply in situations where the 'capitalist' is getting a small return and workers rewarded handsomely by any standard. Better imo to define exploitation as when capitalists are earning excess returns (and I'd fudge that by differentiating between workers' wages and salaries of top execs). Otherwise you lay yourself open to "the only thing worse than being exploited by capitlists is not beingn exploited by capitalists" which is J Robinson too I believe.

Luis Enrique

and i think you only have to look at the income distribution to infer workers are being expoloited

B.L. Zebub


This is a genuine question: what you exposed above is related to or influenced by Steve Keen's ideas, yes?

If so, I'd be interested in reading about that in more detail.


I've always thought that defining value by scarcity was an absurd misdirection, in part because there is no reason that the two should correlate at all. At any point in socioeconomic development beyond subsistence, value is to some extent socially defined, not economically defined. Status ends up being the most "useful" resource, as we see among all those who've never had to worry about their material conditions.

Placing a high value on the frivolous and "useless" has always been the hallmark of those most able to decide the value of anything, because they have no use for economic use (so to speak), but rather social signaling. Broad social respect is an extremely expensive thing to buy with money alone.

@Luis Enrique
Ah, but name for me a production process that doesn't take place over time. There's an infinite amount of time for all of us, but for each of us only so much, and those who fail to value it die full of regret. Surely someone somewhere must have something to say about this.

Luis Enrique

I don’t know why I wrote the above. Surplus is also a mainstream term. See wages set by bargaing over a surplus. Presume it’s based on prices of outputs compared to inputs or if in model with real quantities not prices, then in subjective values.

Lukas production functions are defined over a period of time.


Ahem, I am trying to explain my understanding of Marx, who wrote both as economist and a philosopher, and a politial theorist.
Alienation, exploitation and inequality are technically distinct concepts, even if in the marxist (view (and that of every business school, that are faithful to marxist political economy) capitalist control of the means of production leads to alienation which leads to exploitation which leads to inequality. In the marxian political economy inequality can exist even with exploitation, for example, and that makes it less objectionable.

«Surplus is also a mainstream term. See wages set by bargaing over a surplus.»

Some Economists have not forgotten at least some terminology of political economy and some Departments of Business still have surviving "history of economic thought" courses that some postgrads may still accidentally occasionally wander into and pick up some terms from...

«are not meaningful terms, only prices and profits and subjective value.»

But the mainstream focus on prices and profits etc. is the purest handwaving, because it begs the question...

«A production function says nothing about prices»

Ha! This is one of the best examples where mainstream theory handwaves furiously: mainstream production functions switch effortlessly from "capital" as phusical quantities to aggregating "capital" by reckoning it in "numeraire". That is all about prices, and even about future expected prices and future expected rates of discount. Therefore rational expectations, a grand feat of handwaving.


«defining value by scarcity was an absurd misdirection, in part because there is no reason that the two should correlate at all.»

Ahhhhhhh but this is a very political point and not quite agreeable because:

One of the conceits of "microfoundations" is to show that there are "laws" of Economics that are precise, so everybody get exactly their just compensation, so for example demand-supply schedules are always presented, cleverly, as lines and static.

The view of political economists is that instead "everything" lies within boundaries of feasibility, which are dynamic, so for example demand-supply schedules are ribbons that change over time and circumstances, and transactions happens not at uniquely determined points of intersections, but in regions of feasibility, the precise point dependent on institutional arrangements.

So the LTV determines one boundary for "price" and desirability another boundary.


«exposed above is related to or influenced by Steve Keen's ideas»

Related and independently derived, but also a bit influenced. I had always suspected that the "classicals" used "labour" as a synonym for "muscle power", but various later readings persuaded me that was indeed the case. Later post will have some hopefully interesting detail. Then I looked into the literature and found that obviously this had been figured out before (centuries ago in some cases, like B de Mandeville).

Anyhow for similar approaches some references:




Luis Enrique

Blissex if you can come up with a better way of trying to describe total quantities of highly heterogeneous things (i.e. capital) you have a Nobel awaiting. Everybody know that attempts to put a number on the real quantity of capital is always going to be a rough and ready endeavour.

I don't see how working with prices and profits is 'handwaving'. What question does it beg? Much of economics is about trying to explain these things. I would not say economics focuses on prices and profits because many economics models work with real quantities that are high abstract and in theory are made commensurate using subjective value (utility) as the unit of account.

And I don't think this lot
picked up the term surplus by accidentally wandering in to the wrong seminar

B.L. Zebub


Thanks for the links


One of the ironies of economic theory is that the assumption needed to go from labour values to prices in a formal model are pretty much the same as those required to make an aggregate production function half way sensible: a constant capital to labour ratio across different sectors.

I don't like either of them, tbh. At base, the LTV seems to be attractive to many people because it embodies a moral principle or ethical view of capitalism, rather than because it is a useful investigative tool in social science. Hence your indifference Chris, I would say.

B.L. Zebub

Personally, I like this bit from Chris' post

"In fact, the LTV is reasonably successful by the standards of conventional economics: we have empirical evidence to suggest that it does (pdf)[1] a decent (pdf)[2] job of explaining (pdf)[3] relative prices – not that this was how Marx intended it to be used."

{1] http://www.ehu.eus/Jarriola/Docencia/EcoMarx/EcoMarx%20frances/labthvalue.pdf
[2] http://users.wfu.edu/cottrell/eea97.pdf
[3] http://reality.gn.apc.org/econ/DZ_article1.pdf

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