Re: [OPE-L] basics vs. non-basics

From: Ian Wright (iwright@GMAIL.COM)
Date: Mon Oct 03 2005 - 13:35:08 EDT

Hi Allin,

Before talking of "beans" again, I just want to reiterate that the problem
can arise with an arbitrary number of commodities, because the difficulty
arises from the existence of self-reproducing non-basic systems, of which
there are arbitrary hierarchies (image a stack of russian dolls). The case
of a single self-reproducing non-basic commodity, such as "beans", is a
special and simple case, used for ease of exposition.

Plus, the lack of a clear criteria for classifying goods consumed by workers
as being "necessary", and hence basic, or part of the "surplus", and hence
potentially non-basic, means that the number of commodities with
undetermined prices is essentially arbitrary. We cannot say that the problem
only affects a small number, or even a clearly defined number, of

Sraffa points out that one can 'solve' the SRNB problem if one is

> willing to assume that the commodity in question fetches a price as
> output that is greater than its price as input (for then its rate
> of profit, which is presumed to be limited below that determined
> within the basic sector, can be jacked up). This is of course
> contrary to the usual Sraffian idea -- but it seems to me it's a
> temporary concession.

Yes, but there's a twist. Sraffa wants to investigate uniform prices and
uniform profit rates. He knows that beans cannot fulfill these conditions.
So Sraffa argues that a producer of beans can fulfill these conditions if
beans are sold at a higher output price than the input price attributed to
them as means of production "in his book-keeping".

So in order to maintain the importance of the distinction between basic and
non-basic commodities, Sraffa is forced to consider differentials in input
and output prices for a whole class of commodities. He tries to avoid the
disequilibrium consequences by restricting the differentials to book-keeping
operations that do not have real effects. This dodges the problem by
literally "cooking the books" in the local industry.

Sraffa had some early exchanges with the mathematician Newman on this.
Newman was concerned.

Kurz & Salvadori make the following observation: "beans producers would
prefer to sell the whole harvest at the market to enter into another
business, whereas nobody can enter into the beans industry because if
somebody did, he would have to buy beans at the market price, that is, at a
higher price than the one he could attribute to them as means of

Sraffa's solution is a non-starter, and is generally recognised as such.

The implication -- if I'm understanding this right -- is that the
> price of such a commodity must rise continuously relative to the
> general run of commodities. But then, surely, before long it prices
> itself out of the market. Demand goes to zero and it's no longer
> produced. Since it's not a basic, there are no repercussions.

The implication is that the Sraffian price equation is incomplete as it
stands. K&S do begin to introduce short-period demand/supply considerations
to try and work around the problem. OK, that's one route, although the
results have their own difficulties, which we can go into.

But I entered the Sraffian world under the impression that the
single-product Sraffian price equation determines prices once the real wage
is specified and hence was a complete theory of price that did not need the
detour to labour values. For example, a quote from Steedman's classic
critique of Marxian value theory: "... the rate of profit is fully
determined by the real wage and the available methods of production, as are
the prices of production ..." But this is not the case, unless the methods
of production specified in the input-ouput matrix satisfy a particular
mathematical condition that lacks an economic justification.


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