[OPE-L] Prof. Perelman and the quantification problem

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Mon Jun 18 2007 - 13:31:31 EDT

Prof. Perelman wrote:

What I meant was that it is hopeless to think that anyone could
quantify the amount of abstract labor in an economy.
You could possibly get the total number of hours, but using wages as an
indication of the amount of abstract labor reflected in those hours
does not make sense to me.  If wages (the price of labor) reflect
values, why not use prices everywhere & throw out values altogether --
a la Joan Robinson?

Reply: in human society there are an enormous amount of phenomena which we
can cognise only qualitatively, and which we cannot "measure" objectively,
but the fact that this is so doesn't mean that we cannot quantify many
things anyway, nor that objectivity is impossible, because we cannot measure
in the empiricist sense. When Heisenberg discovered he could not measure the
movement of some subatomic particles, this did not cause him to abandon
physics. Often, although we cannot quantify a trend as a whole, we can
develop (maybe indirect) indicators of the trend, and that's useful.

Using data on average hours worked and on the labour force, plus data from
time-use surveys, we can obtain a fairly good indication of the total hours
of paid and unpaid labour-hours worked. And we can relate that to net output
data and incomes. Even if the estimates are fairly crude, they can reveal
some significant trends about the valuation of labour-time.

A few foundational reasons for keeping a concept of economic value are that:

- it is an indispensable assumption (or presupposition) for grouping,
relating, measuring and aggregating prices in a non-arbitrary way.
- ideal prices cannot be inferred from real prices, without reference to
assumptions about economic value.
- all accounting presupposes concepts of  comparable value (value
equivalence), value used up, conserved value, transferred value, and newly
created value.
- at any time, most products and assets in an economy have a real value to
which human behaviour responds, although they have no actual price (at best
only an estimated ideal price).
- only if we have a concept of value, can we reasonably talk about the
conservation of the value of things traded, through successive exchanges,
and through time.
- the attribution of value to products and assets is a vital human process
in the economising of resources, irrespective of whether it involves
- an explanation of prices in terms of other prices leads to an infinite
regress, which does not adequately explain how prices are formed.
- the measurement and valuation of labour-time continues to be essential for
the functioning of the capitalist economy.

The more economists banish the notion of economic value in favour of talk
about prices, the more it becomes evident that their talk about prices
implicitly *assumes* concepts of economic value.

I agree, it is impossible to measure a number of Marx's theorems directly,
but others we can measure fairly well. Therefore, the choice is not between
qualitative and a quantitative theory, but between a theory which can be
quantatively tested in maybe limited ways, and an interpretation which
cannot be quantitatively verified at all.

Insofar as a refined pricing exists for all kind of labour, and insofar as
people know very well the average time it takes to perform a task, there
exists a lot of data you can use to test a labour theory of value.


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